By: Kayleen Carter, CA DCSS
Employees of the North Coast Regional Department of Child Support Services (North Coast DCSS) recently participated in an intensive, multi-day training in Mediation in which participants learned valuable skills for conflict resolution. The training will improve caseworkers’ ability to communicate with upset or polarized parents and help them guide parents towards the ability to work together through effective mediation techniques.
Overall, 18 caseworkers from North Coast DCSS attended the 34-hour class, presented by Humboldt Mediation Services, a non-profit in Eureka that offers mediation and facilitation services to the community. The first session began on June 5th and ended on June 7th, while the second session began on June 19th and ended on June 21st.
Lisa Dugan, Director of North Coast DCSS, said that the motivation behind scheduling the training was her team’s desire to change the culture of their department. “We need to communicate better and to help parents,” she said. “When you have parents in the room who aren’t getting along, we needed the skills to help them to get through a conversation,” said Dugan. “What better way to reach that goal than through mediator training that ultimately mirrors the process of resolving disputes that a caseworker would experience when handling a family meeting.”
Ken Barney, a Child Support Specialist for North Coast DCSS and an organizer for the training, said that the goal of mediation is to create a child support order that both parties could agree to, and that he is looking forward to applying what he learned towards that goal.
“The training focused heavily on role-playing, acting out ways of resolving a dispute,” he said. There were a variety of scenarios that were covered in the training. One scenario featured a single mother who needed financial aid to raise her child, and she thought she knew who the father was but did not tell him anything about the child.
“Though the mediator is there,” Barney said, “the idea was for the mediator to facilitate conversation in such a way that the parents are coached into listening and showing the other parent that they understand so they may work towards their own solution.”
Students learned when to stop talking and start “effective listening,” how to empathize with each of the disputants, and to be patient and let them speak. Validation of the disputant’s needs and feelings to demonstrate that the mediator sees them as a good person was another useful approach, and participants were taught to help both sides of a dispute reframe aggressive or blaming statements in a way that acknowledges the emotions and reasons behind the angry words, treating both equally, regardless of whether the mediator would ordinarily agree with the disputants or actions involved.
Lisa stated that before mediation is possible, both parties are asked to identify if there are any concerns regarding domestic violence. If there are domestic violence concerns, then North Coast DCSS will not engage the parties in a mediation session.
After the scenarios, the participants debriefed, discussing what worked and what didn’t. At the close of the training, each of the participants earned a certificate which allows them to volunteer their new mediation expertise within the community.
Barney said that for him, one of the main takeaways of the training was its on-the-job value. “It’s an intense communications class.” Director Dugan appreciated that the class was “focused on making sure that you [the mediator] are letting both parents know you care and understand. This can break down barriers to moving forward, whether in family meetings or any interaction involving highly charged emotions.”
North Coast DCSS plans to have all staff undergo the training over time. Mediation skills like the ones North Coast DCSS have embraced can help prepare caseworkers to guide parents through a complex process, resulting in more family meetings, fewer court dates, more cooperative and enforceable orders created and faster support to families.