Child Protection Mediation – Promoting collaboration in the care of our children
Over the past few weeks, the region’s newspapers and airwaves have been replete with stories about children who had been physically or sexually abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents or guardians. That our children need care and protection is quite clear.
A few territories—Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica come most readily to mind—have set up organizations dedicated to child protection. The child protection legislation which guides the operation of each of these organizations gives them all the power to intervene where there is evidence that suggests that there is or there is likely to be abuse or neglect of a child. One form that that intervention could take is child protection mediation.
Once the organization intervenes, other players in the child protection system such as the attorney for the organization, the Children’s Advocate or Children’s Attorney, the social worker assigned to the case, other family members and even foster parents in whose care a child is temporarily placed if he is removed from his home, all become involved in the care of the child. It is unrealistic to imagine that the views of all these parties about what is best for the child will be in perfect harmony. Child protection mediation, with its emphasis on collaborative problem-solving, is one process that can be employed to involve all these constituencies in the formulation of a care plan for the child. The child can also be part of the mediation since the legislation dealing with child protection in these territories includes provision for a child to be heard in any matter or judicial proceedings affecting him if he is capable of expressing his wishes.
To my mind, one of the most attractive features about child protection mediation is that not only is it an excellent problem-solving tool within the child protection court process, but it can also be used as a tool to perhaps prevent some matters from even entering the court process. Once a concern has been raised about a child’s safety, a child protection mediation can address the matters surrounding that concern in order to prevent a situation from escalating to the point where a child has to be removed from his home.
Some of the issues which can be dealt with in a child protection mediation are: what services a family might need in order to strengthen it against the possibility of any or of further abuse and neglect occurring; where a child should live if it is determined that the child will not be safe with the parent or guardian; how long the child should be out of the home; what, if any, access the parents or guardians should have to the child while the child is out of the home; what must be done by a family to facilitate a child’s reintegration after he has been removed by the child protection agency and even, whether a child will go back to his family of origin or whether he will become a candidate for adoption.
The benefits of using mediation in the child protection system are the same benefits you get in any other type of mediation. It saves time and money, each party has an equal chance to be heard without the editing that is imposed by evidentiary rules and court procedure and perhaps, most importantly, the care plans generated in a mediation session will be more creative than a care plan developed by a Judge.
The business of child protection is heart-wrenching and traumatic. Very often the incidents that precipitate the involvement of the child protection organization are the kinds of incidents that leave lifelong scars—both physical as well as emotional and psychological. We therefore ought not to run the risk of re-traumatizing our children by confining our options for resolution of child protection issues to the courts and our adversarial legal system but should give serious thought to integrating child protection mediation and as many other collaborative processes as possible into our fledgling child protection systems for the benefit of our region’s children.