A mediated solution for congested courts

Resolution: A program at Howard Community College is training mediators to settle minor disputes face to face, without a jury.

May 10, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Joan Gavigan was almost perfect.

She coaxed a feuding father and son to look each other in the eye, to talk about their differences over money and the son's education. She was just about to get the two to sign an agreement about finances and school when she made her mistake:

She told the two that it was obvious that they loved each other.

"Argh," Gavigan said, recalling the moment. "That's such not a guy thing to say. Too touchy feely. ... It could ruin everything."

Such is the life of a conflict mediator trainee.

When Gavigan completes her training and becomes a certified mediator, she will counsel arguing parties at Howard Community College's new Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center to try to reach agreements without going to court - an alternative that officials hope will help unclog the legal system and produce better results.

Mediations typically do not involve felonies or violent crimes and instead focus on misdemeanors such as property crimes or family arguments and neighborhood disputes.

More important, mediation can offer something more powerful: a chance to heal emotional wounds.

HCC's program will be the first in Maryland to offer victim-offender mediation, in which victims can talk to the people who committed crimes against them, state officials say.

"Many people are still being eaten away by anger because they didn't get any way to put it to rest," said Rachel A. Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution office, which with HCC is funding the program.

"There are cases which aren't very well served by the criminal justice system," said Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, who plans to refer some cases to the center. "This will address the root of the problem, and hopefully give people better satisfaction."

Howard County Police Department officials plan to forward some disputes to the center.

The HCC program reflects a national trend. States such as Hawaii and California have well-established mediation programs. In Maryland, 13 local programs offer some form of mediation to community members.

Gavigan is one of 23 conflict mediators in training at Howard Community College. Her preparation includes 40 hours of training sessions during which she and other volunteers role-play possible mediations and other lessons. The scenarios are videotaped so she can review her sessions to look for flaws, giving her an opportunity to dissect every word.

A mediator will interview the parties involved before arranging a meeting at a neutral site, where they will try to reach an agreement that is signed by both parties. If the agreement is not adhered to, the parties could then go to court.

While most of the agreements involve money, some are also creative solutions. Take Gavigan's recent case. The father and son - two other volunteers involved in the role-playing - disagreed about the amount of chores the son was doing around the house. The father was also annoyed that his son, who recently graduated from high school, was not enrolled in college or a trade school.

The son countered that his father did not understand him and that all he cared about was dollars and cents.

While the two aired their feelings, Gavigan said little. After the flow of words ebbed, she began shaping an agreement about dividing the chores and where the son would go to school.

But the father acknowledged that he sometimes loses his temper and wanted to know what to do about their frequent arguments.

"How about a `timeout' every time we argue? So we have some time to cool down," the father said.

Gavigan included it in the agreement.

Many of the volunteers are using the mediation sessions as a way to explore possible legal careers.

Ellicott City resident Roxie Tossie works in the human resources division of Safeway but plans to attend law school. As a mediator, she hopes to practice her negotiating skills before applying to schools.

"It's like a rehearsal, it gives me a chance to understand what [being a lawyer] is like," she said.

Gavigan is a lawyer at the Domestic Violence Center, a nonprofit group in Towson, and she hopes to add mediation services to her practice.

"In court, someone wins and someone loses," she said. "Here, it can be a win-win situation."

Despite the mention of love, the two men signed the agreement. And though Gavigan later fretted about saying "love" in front of two men, they shrugged it off.

"C'mon, you did good," the father said. "Emotion's not a bad thing."

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