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Mediation is more efficient than court hearings, study finds

Child protection mediation is more efficient than traditional court proceedings and more likely to help families reach some form of agreement, a rapid evidence review summary by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has found.

Where agreements were made through mediation, fewer court hearings took place and families spent less time in proceedings, the review found. However, in the studies reviewed, only one had a random referral to mediation and therefore it is not possible to exclude bias in relation to the cases and parents referred to mediation and the findings presented.

“There is little consensus as to whether full or partial agreement is most common for mediation families. However, families that went through child protection mediation were more likely to reach some form of agreement than those that did not,” said the report.

Contact and child living arrangements appeared to be the issues most likely to be agreed through mediation, although further research is needed to understand the types of cases that mediation may or may not work for, it adds. Reunification with parents/guardians and adoption were often cited as the most common permanency goal.

The briefing paper summarises the findings of a rapid evidence review that aimed to uncover what we know about the impact of child protection mediation from three countries where it has already been implemented— Australia, Canada and the United States. Child protection mediation was introduced in these countries in response to the adversarial nature of child protection proceedings, increasing numbers of cases, the need to reduce the length of proceedings, the lack of quality legal representation for parents and reductions in funding.

The findings of the full review aim to help inform any future development of child protection mediation services in England and Wales.

The review highlighted that effective, independent and trained mediators and professionals are key to the process. Mediators can be powerful enablers of successful child protection mediation but can also hinder the process if inexperienced and lacking knowledge about the families and issues before them.

Lack of training for professionals, not having enough time to prepare for each conference, tension between professionals, and a lack of clear protocols around programme operation and confidentiality are key issues.

Trust in the independence of child protection mediation is key particularly given many families view child welfare services with suspicion.

There is consistency across the literature that child protection mediation programmes are more inclusive of families than traditional court proceedings, which do not provide a space for families to take part in decision-making. Families feel child protection mediation places the best interests of the child at the centre.

However, the literature on the actual experiences of children is sparse. The review was not able to compare the effectiveness of child protection mediation with other approaches to engaging families, reducing conflict and making decisions in child protection cases. The evidence suggests that child protection mediation is more effective in cases where the issues presented are more ‘straightforward’, such as establishing contact arrangements, as opposed to complex cases such as child maltreatment, neglect, alcohol dependency, and substance abuse.

The review makes the following recommendations:

- Before resources are committed to a pilot, a realistic assessment of the cost of a child protection mediation service is essential, together with a clear plan for future funding.

- In addition to securing funding, setting service parameters and identifying the organisation(s) responsible for delivery and development will be key.

- The pilot budget should include adequate funding for research and evaluation.

- Consideration should be given as to whether some benefits of mediation could be achieved by developing systems and services that already exist—including the pre-proceedings process, family group conferences (FGCs) and issues resolution hearings (IRHs).

- Consideration needs to be given to how best to rationalise services so that all their advantages are maximised and repeated demands to engage are not placed on parents, families, local authorities and professionals.

The impact of child protection mediation in public law proceedings on outcomes for children and families

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