Child Access Mediation: Saving Time and Money

With all the criticism of non-custodial parents that goes on in Congress over payment of financial child support, it is gratifying to see that at least one jurisdiction in Maryland pays attention to the emotional aspect of child support – parenting. There are financial child-support offices all across America to help parents obtain monetary relief, but offices to help parents with access/visitation problems are almost non-existent. The only post-divorce access office east of Michigan is in Prince George’s County. There, custodial and non-custodial parents with an access problem can meet with a mediator to help resolve the problem informally, without the parents’ having to go to court.

It is true that a number of jurisdictions in Maryland and across the country have mediation staff to help parents mediate when they first file for separation In and of itself, this is important because it helps parents resolve problems before positions “harden” later. However, the mediation service I wish to discuss occurs after the divorce has taken place.

There are of course frequent disputes between custodial and non-custodial parents. Resolving these problems informally helps to ” demilitarize” the divorce process where children are concerned. Reducing the battling saves time, money and much psychological and emotional toll. More, it helps defuse divisive issues so that children are kept out of the middle of potentially devastating battles.

In early reports on the PG County program in 1986 and 1987, Meg Sollenberger, then the director of the county Child Support Office, reported that more than 500 visitation complaints had been received the previous year, 1985. There had been an 80 percent positive resolution rate, at an average settlement time of one hour and 37 minutes per case, with average salary costs of about $15.1 If even half those parents had resorted to the courts to resolve their complaints, the cost to the complainants and the taxpayers would have been considerably higher, given the fact that litigation is always costlier than mediation.

In fact, federally funded researcher Sanford Braver, of Arizona State University, has found that, where children have access to both parents, financial child-support payments are up to twice as high as where such access is lacking. According to Braver, who utilized 1989 Census Bureau materials, in the case of fathers with joint custody (7.3 percent of fathers), 90.2 percent paid all support owed. Where fathers had visitation rights (54.9 percent of fathers), 79.1 percent paid their support in full. But where fathers had neither joint custody nor visitation (37.9 percent of fathers), only 44.5 percent paid their full support quotas.2 The impact of this disparity in payment rates was felt by mothers: No fewer than 41.0 percent of the mothers of children whose fathers had no visitation rights lived in poverty. By contrast, among the group of mothers where fathers had access rights, 27.0 percent lived below the poverty line. And where fathers had joint custody, just 25.6 percent of mothers were in poverty.3

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why access breeds payments: When parents are around, so are their wallets. No one has to beat an involved parent over the head to get him to support his children financially and emotionally. (This goes for America’s two million non-custodial mothers, as well.) When the Children’s Rights Council (CRC), an advocacy group of which I am president, led an effort to convince Congress in 1988 to fund demonstration projects for access – the first time Congress was to grant funds for access – it was the correlation between access and financial child support that was the most telling single argument in favor of access funding. For example, the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement, a subdivision of the Department of Health and Human Services, reported that Michigan was reaping $8.33 in child support for every dollar spent on collection, the highest ratio between child-support collections and collection costs of any state in the the country. Michigan is the only state in the Union with a statewide access-mediation program.

In the early 1980s, then-Michigan state Representative Debbie Stabenow (D) had spearheaded the fight to expand Michigan’s ” friend of the court” (FOC) program, begun in 1919, to include access-complaint resolution, starting in 1983. The idea behind the expanded FOC program was to have staff in every Michigan county informally resolve financial child-support, custody and visitation disputes. In a letter to the CRC, Stabenow credited the balanced system in Michigan with improving child support as well as improving access of children to both parents. The September 26, 1986 letter said, ” The formerly irresolvable standoff between the parents who claimed, ‘I’ll pay if I can see my kids’ and ‘I’ll allow visitation when I see some child support,’ can now be addressed with vigorous enforcement of both problems.” 4

It bears mentioning that, with all financial child support now required to be paid through government collection agencies (even if there has never been a missed payment or threat of a missed payment), access remains the only unresolved issue – except in places like Michigan and Prince George’s County. The divorce industry that is allowed to flourish in the court system today enables attorneys to inflame passions and run up bills, instead of encouraging parents to learn how to share parenting and cooperate. This is why access-mediation staff can be so useful – by helping parents get at problems which often have nothing to do with visitation per se and which, once discussed and resolved, can make the visitation situation healthier.

It is important to point out that with mediation no one ” imposes” a decision from above, in the manner of a judge. The mediator helps the parents resolve their own differences voluntarily and cooperatively. The parents must buy into the agreements. Where parents voluntarily agree to a resolution, they are more likely to honor it.

Nonetheless, getting the word out has proven difficult. A seven-month survey of the Michigan FOC system last year by Laurie Casey, senior policy analyst for the CRC, found that not enough Michiganders knew about the existence of the FOC because of inadequate public information.5 Casey also found, in six open forums around the state at which 200 people testified, that enforcement of access awards was not given even half the priority that child-support enforcement was given – despite the Census Bureau’s findings that better access leads to higher payments. Casey found that even custodial and non-custodial parents who did use the Michigan FOC system were given inadequate information as to their rights and responsibilities. Still, credit should be given where due: Michigan remains the only state that has a statewide structure set up to help parents with access complaints. The program should be preserved and strengthened, as it should here.

Under Maryland law, judges can order make-up of visitation and may impose financial penalties against a parent who violates visitation orders. A judge can also order a parent to provide 45 days’ advance written notification to the court and to the other parent of an intended permanent move of the child either within or outside the state. Maryland also has an option for joint custody. Parents need to know about those laws. But the legal system should be the option of last resort. A Michigan-style statewide access-mediation program might well prove a sound investment. With trial lawyers less utilized, taxpayers might prevail.

Mr. Levy is the president of the Washington-based Children’s Rights Council.

End Notes

[Top] 1.Meg Sollenberger, director, Child Support Office, Prince George’s County, various memoranda to John Wesley White, chief administrative officer, Office of the County Executive, Price George’s County, dated April 9, 1986, July 15, 1986 and January 21, 1987.

[Top] 2. Gordon H. Lester, ” Child Support and Alimony: 1989,” Current Population Reports (Consumer Income series), Series P-60, No. 173, September 1991, pp. 6-7.

[Top] 3. Lester, ” Child Support and Alimony: 1989,” p. 7.

[Top] 4. Debbie Stabenow, letter to David L. Levy, president, Children’s Rights Council (CRC), dated Sept. 26, 1986.

[Top] 5. Laurie Casey, Report on the Michigan Friend of the Court System (Washington, D.C.: CRC, September 1995).

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