Warring neighbors fill her docket

Mediator keeps minor disputes from landing in court

May 04, 1999|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

In a little more than four months, Rose M. Casazza's part-time role as a mediator in the state's attorney's office has mushroomed into full-time work , with about 80 cases -- ranging from barking dogs to boundary disputes -- awaiting her attention.

As a mediator, Casazza acts as a buffer between disputing parties, helping them reach resolutions before court dockets become jammed with frivolous, time-consuming cases.

On the surface, many disputes are "very trivial, but they have been brewing for months, even years, and the potential for violence is great," Casazza said. She tries to "provide early intervention, get involved before the dispute escalates, charges are filed, and the matter winds up in the courtroom as a criminal case," she said.

"The goal is to provide better resolutions, prevent future recurrence and relieve the court dockets," said State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, noting that Casazza has helped resolve about 20 cases since December.

The use of a mediator to settle disputes before trial is not new. Carroll lawyers assist judges in brokering divorce settlements -- custody, visitation and financial arrangements -- before parting couples enter the courtroom.

Anne Arundel County has had mediators about 15 years, and

Montgomery County has community volunteer mediators, Casazza said.

Casazza, who is a victim witness coordinator for the state's attorney's office, approached Barnes last summer about beginning a mediation program in Carroll, after a roving dog caused turmoil in a neighborhood.

"Jerry [Barnes] was very supportive, and, in November, I attended a 40-hour mediation training course in Baltimore and got started with cases in December," she said.

Formerly a paralegal in trial litigation, Casazza said she wanted to use her skills in dealing with people to have a positive impact on those in the legal system. Since she became a mediator, she estimates, she has opened files on 100 cases, about 50 of them in the past six weeks.

Lawyers and police officers are becoming aware of her duties and have begun referring potential criminal cases to her, she said.

Such cases have included animal complaints, boundary disputes, family disagreements, tenant-landlord conflicts, telephone harassment and bus stop disputes among students and sometimes parents.

For privacy reasons, Casazza would not discuss specific cases, but she offered information about the roving dog.

In that case, three adults were charged in minor assaults, she said. "Emotions were flying, especially between two neighbors and the dog's owner."

The people involved had no criminal history, but the potential for violence was growing and the matter needed a quick resolution, she said.

The roving-dog case was dismissed in court on a technicality over how the citation was written by a Humane Society officer.

"We were ready to recharge the dog owner in that case, but the owner moved away and resolved the problem," Casazza said.

"A mediator is a facilitator, someone to help those involved resolve their problem," Casazza said.

The key to mediation, she said, is to listen to both sides and look for opportunities to help establish more effective communication. She helps discover "what's really bothering them and what needs to be done to eliminate the cause of that annoyance," she said.

Some conflicts can be mediated with a telephone call to each party. Some are better resolved by inviting the two sides to sit down with her and discuss the matter in a neutral environment.

Most accept Casazza's invitation because their options are limited. She explains applicable laws and notes that criminal charges can be avoided if the parties can reach a mutually acceptable resolution.

"When both parties leave, having agreed to a resolution worked out in mediation, it's more likely to be long-lasting than if a judge had ordered one or both parties to accept the court's resolution," she said.

Even if a criminal charge is placed on the court's inactive docket, the root of the problem might not be resolved, Casazza noted. "Helping both sides reach a mutual agreement is more likely to end the problem."

Cases most conducive to mediation involve people who have no criminal history, "where there's a strong suspicion that it was a one-time incident that brought them to mediation," Casazza said. "Often, lack of effective communication is at the heart of the problem."

Casazza hopes her efforts will help relieve police officers, who often are called to break up arguments between neighbors or family members.

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