In custody disputes, mediation taking off Advocates find it cheaper, faster, better

February 12, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

When Wendy Linton left her husband in August, she wanted full custody of their sons. But Carl Linton Jr. also wanted to spend time with the boys, Carl III, 6, and Tyler, 5.

Instead of leaving their dispute to a judge, the Lintons got free help from a Baltimore County Circuit Court custody mediator, with whom they hammered out a plan: Each parent would have custody three days a week and take turns Saturdays.

With high lawyers' fees, crowded court dockets and a judge's decisions not always suiting the family's needs, custody mediation is taking off as an alternative to trials in deciding who gets the children when couples divorce.

"If the parties are willing to do it, it saves them a lot of money and the heartache of airing their dirty laundry in a public forum and having a stranger in a black robe making a decision for you," said Henry J. Myerberg, a divorce lawyer for 20 years and chairman of the Baltimore County Bar Association's Family Law Committee. "It's definitely a major trend."

Mediation also can save the court's time. According to Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader II, divorces account for about half the civil cases filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, and hearing them consumes at least 25 percent of judges' time.

Successful mediation can mean a big savings in the divorce costs, which lawyers and mediators say vary between $1,000 and $100,000. If custody is resolved, parents save on lawyers' fees and often can go to a settlement judge with remaining issues.

In Baltimore County -- which requires mediation when there are custody disputes but no allegations of abuse -- mediation is free.

Around the metropolitan area, Harford County has evaluators and mediators whose fees are on a sliding scale; Anne Arundel County's court-appointed mediators charge approximately $75 an hour per couple; Howard County masters send couples to parenting seminars and mediation sessions, which usually are not free, or to a settlement judge on staff.

Although there are other issues, such as dividing property and money, custody is a big part of a divorce. "If custody is contested, people spend a lot of time [on] that issue," said the Baltimore County court's custody mediator, Kathryn Rogers. "That can be very time-consuming for courts."

She and other mediators, in two-hour sessions, try to guide couples to a custody compromise, as Francene C. Sigai, supervisor of the custody division, did with the Lintons.

Mrs. Linton, 30, said her husband spent too much time -- at least five nights a week -- playing sports, and would indulge their two sons without giving her enough attention.

On Aug. 12, she took the couple's two sons and her son from a previous marriage, and left, telling her husband in a note that they were through.

It came as a surprise to Mr. Linton, 36, a Coca-Cola truck driver. "I thought it was going pretty well," he said of the marriage, which began in 1989. But he acknowledged her concerns.

They began an ad-hoc shared custody arrangement, which proved unsuccessful -- Mrs. Linton would stop to pick up the boys from day care only to learn Mr. Linton had already come for them. Sometimes, she would call them at his house and suggest she come get them.

They had a session with Ms. Sigai Dec. 20. "It got pretty ugly in there," said Mrs. Linton, who recently found a two-bedroom townhouse in Middle River and began a receptionist job.

But the mediator helped the Lintons see that their arguments hurt the people they loved most -- their children.

The Lintons arrived at an agreement both are comfortable with: Mr. Linton has custody from Sunday morning to Wednesday evening, and Mrs. Linton from then until Saturday morning; they alternate Saturdays.

Once an agreement is reached, mediators send it to the couple's attorneys and place a memo in the court file stating they participated in mediation and reached a parenting agreement. The attorneys are responsible for turning that agreement into a consent order, according to mediator Kathryn Rogers.

"The premise is parents are best qualified to make decisions for their children," said Aza Howard Butler, who directs the county Circuit Court's Custody and Mediation Division. She said the success rate is more than 60 percent.

Couples often are more successful than judges in finding acceptable solutions. When it's up to judges, "parents view that as a win-lose situation," said Risa Garon, executive director of the Columbia-based Children of Separation and Divorce Center, which has worked with 6,000 Maryland families in the last 14 years.

"It becomes a contest to prove who can be the best parent and who is the worst. That can produce so many wounds that it can takes years to heal before they can co-parent," she said.

Fathers are more interested in co-parenting, says Towson domestic attorney Ellen P. Rosenberg. "In the last four or five years, I have seen more of my clients who are fathers go in and come out with a three-four split, a 50-50 split, things that you did not see 10 years ago."

Before, fathers either would seek full custody or none, she said.

Anthony T. Bartlett, a Timonium attorney who specializes in family law, says the money saved makes mediation a good move. "You'd be a fool not to encourage your client to go and participate."

However, he said, "It doesn't always work. There are some cases you simply have to try" in court.

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