Thursday, October 20, 2011 marked Mediation Settlement Day in New York State. This annual event is hosted by the Unified Court System and mediation providers such as Child & Family Services Center for Resolution and Justice, which operates the court's Community Dispute Resolution Centers Program throughout the eight counties of Western New York. Unprecedented cuts to the Judiciary’s budget and the resulting reduction in funding for mediation programs has changed the tone of this year's Mediation Settlement Day from one of celebration to a call for action. Throughout the month of October, Child & Family Services Center for Resolution and Justice will be coordinating efforts to inform the New York State Court System and Legislature of the impact the funding cuts have had on the community as a result of the scaling back of important mediation services.
Last year, the Center assisted close to 6,000 fellow Western New Yorkers resolve conflicts that could have otherwise resulted in increased cases for an overburdened court system, law enforcement and expenses for the individuals and families involved. This year, the Center has been forced to reduce mediation within the courts and the community because of a 40% cut in funding.
Mediation supporters argue that the cost savings alone that mediation offers the parties and the courts justifies the restoration of mediation funding. The Custody and Visitation Mediation Program the Center administers for Erie County Family Court was on track to handle more than 600 referrals before recently exhausting the funding available to pay for the service. At a cost of just $160 per resolution, as opposed to the thousands of dollars that can be spent in litigation, it is clear that mediation is cost effective. Mediation is also of tremendous value to the parties involved in the Family Court Program.
It is not simply a fiscal choice, but a choice about helping families. Bridget M. O’Connell, Esq. JD/MSW, Mediation Manager for the Erie County Family Court notes, "When it comes to families, we are often addressing matters that will come up again for parents as children grow and change. Issues around parenting time, scheduling activities, education and health care arise again, and again. Mediation affords parents and caregivers the opportunity to build a parenting plan that will work for their family. This takes time and requires cooperation, communication and creativity. Mediators can work with families to facilitate the necessary conversations and in this way, help to build the skills needed for future communication and planning." Without the ability to access mediation, many parents and caregivers are left to navigate the complex court system with the associated increase in costs for these families, the court and legal service providers.