In a perfect world, we'd all get along and conflicts, if they ever happened, would be easy to resolve. As things are, however, people and businesses often find themselves attempting to resolve disputes in court. Litigation can be an expensive, time-consuming and stressful enterprise. Prince George's County's Office of Community Relations Mediation Division offers an alternative to court for people willing to talk through their disagreement and strive for a compromise.
"When cooler heads prevail, most things can be resolved," said Office of Community Relations Acting Director Musa L. Eubanks, a self-described "reformed lawyer" who said that when he practiced law, some cases never seemed to resolve.
The Mediation Division is staffed by a small group of paid employees who train and mentor volunteer a crew of 100 volunteer mediators to help resolve family, neighbor-to-neighbor, relationship, landlord/tenant, financial, parenting plan and divorce disputes.
"There's nothing we can't handle, other than foreclosures," said Eubanks. "Those are handled by the State of Maryland."
Approximately 350-400 cases are referred to CMPG each year. Sixty percent of those cases go on to meet for an average of one to three sessions.
Confidential mediation services are offered free of charge at locations throughout the county. Mediators cannot be subpoenaed and neither can their notes, but the agreement itself belongs to the two parties in the dispute. They are free to show the final agreement to anyone.
"We have a very diverse group of volunteers from all walks of life, so we make sure we have people who look like you and can relate to you," said the Mediation Division's Leslie Nelson.
The volunteers go through a training program and then an apprenticeship period during which they assist with mediation, administrative tasks and community outreach efforts. The training is free for those who go on to volunteer as mediators for the county. People interested in receiving the training without volunteering must pay to take the course. Continuing education is offered throughout the year.
During mediation, a pair of mediators bring both parties together for a brainstorming session. Then they separate the parties into "caucuses," engaging in "shuttle diplomacy" to discuss each side's perspective on the issues separately. The mediators try to help both sides gain a realistic view of the situation and what each side is requesting, to ensure that the agreement won't fall through, is not illegal, and can be done.
"We always tell them it's for two hours, for attention span. People get tired. It's mentally draining," said Nelson. "but, do as many two-hour blocks as you need."
The greatest skill of a mediator is in negotiation helping each side inch closer to the other, over one or several two-hour sessions.
Last year, a Prince George's County Public Schools principal called in the Mediation Division to help train students in mediation techniques, in response to a rash of violence in the school. The pilot program has spread to all high schools in the county and is starting to work with middle school students as well.
Mediation is not always binding. It is meant to help both parties come to a compromise they can each willingly accept. In certain cases, such as family court-ordered discussions dealing with child access, support and visitation, agreements made in mediation can be binding. Financial agreements made in mediation are treated essentially like any other contract. Mediators are discouraged from offering suggestions, advice or personal anecdotes they're just there to help the process along.
"We want people to have self-determination and have their own answers about how to go forward," said Nelson.
For some, the greatest benefit of mediation is that it gives each party the opportunity to talk about their feelings and the impact of the dispute on them. For more emotional matters, that can be of great value.
"In court, they don't have so much of a voice," said Nelson. "They don't care about feelings. They just want facts. In mediation, you can talk about how what you did effected me. The only cost is time. To do that takes a lot of courage and commitment to rehash the event."
Some cases require only a low amount of commitment. "If it's just the dry cleaner who messed up your shirt, that's one thing. If it's between family members, if they don't work this out nothing is going to improve those relationships."
No matter what happens, "at least you come away understanding their perspectives," said Eubanks.
Participants are not charged a fee for mediation services. Training and advertising is funded through approximately $80,000 in annual grants. Personnel costs for the program's four paid employees come out of the budget of the county's Office of Community Relations.
Although mediation can be an inexpensive, low-stress and almost therapeutic way to resolve disputes, there are some circumstances in which Maryland regulations do not allow mediation. If there is fear of retaliation, a power imbalance, domestic violence, several mental disabilities or emotional disorders, or drug addiction present, mediation is not a good option. CMPG screens out those participants and sends them elsewhere, to a counselor, psychologist or to the police.
"We don't want to add harm to a situation. If coming here will make things worse for you when you leave here, it is not appropriate," Nelson said. "We teach mediators how to end a meeting safely (if threats, bullying, intoxication or pressure is evident during the mediation session). Trust protects the integrity of the process."
The next volunteer training session will be held in spring 2013. To sign up for training, contact Leslie Nelson at lnelsonco.pg.md.us.