Expanding the Policy Infrastructure for Resolving Family-Related Disputes: Mediation as a Technology

Article excerpt

Public policy has been defined as "the sum of government activities, whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the lives of citizens" (Peters, 1993, p. 4). Family policy, then, may be seen as everything government does that affects families (Zimmerman, 1979). More specific is Aldous and Dumon's (1990) definition of family policy as "objectives concerning family well-being and the specific measures taken by governmental bodies to achieve them" (p. 1137).

Family policy can be characterized by such dimensions as "explicit and implicit family objectives, direct and indirect family effects, manifest and latent family content and effects, and intentional and unintentional family effects or consequences" (Zimmerman, 1992, p. 10). It also can be characterized by level (organizational, community, county, state, regional, national, international) and by sector (public, quasi-public, private) (Zimmerman, 1988). Thus, family policy development involves addressing problems affecting family life as perceived by policy makers at all levels (e.g., national or international, local, or intrafamilial) (Anderson, 1993) and in various social systems and institutions. For example, school boards set policies in public educational institutions, legislatures pass laws establishing roles of families in special education services, and the judicial system structures procedures for divorce and custody cases.

Policy science has a dual focus on a) public policy development and implementation and (b) policy analysis and evaluation (Monroe, 1988). Most visible and most often examined by family scientists are explicit policies with manifest family content and direct family effects, particularly those from the legislative arena. Specific policies typically are examined using a process such as statutory analysis (Moen & Schorr 1987; Monroe, 1987; Sabatier & Mazmanian, 1979) or policy impact analysis (Culler & Cunningham, 1980; Cunningham, Hughes, Philpot, & Pentz, 1981; Perry, Heathington, Philpot, Pentz, & Lo, 1980). A different level of analysis involves examination of the broader policy framework, or policy infrastructure. This less frequently used approach is the basis of this article.

The cultural and historical underpinnings of the U.S. policy infrastructure are individualistic (Aldous, 1987; Hafen, 1990; LeLoup, 1991), making it hard to develop an authentic family policy (Aldous, 1987; Schorr, 1979). In fact, there is no mention of the family in the U.S. constitution (Langley, 1991). Individual freedom, which is tolerated and indeed valued, exists within a framework of limited social control that sometimes results in what are to many members of society unacceptable actions, such as the use of living wills, privacy of adolescents' contraceptive decisions, and abortion. Because our society values the sanctity and privacy of home and family and views these values as rights, it is very hard to institute policies that violate them (Wilcox & O'Keeffe, 1991). Nevertheless, some laws do put protection of the child's welfare over privacy of the family; examples include compulsory education, mandated use of child passenger restraint devices, and obligatory reporting of child abuse.

Furthermore, a cornerstone in our nation's policy framework is legal process. This adversarial model, a classic win-lose approach to dispute settlement, presents various problems. It is costly in both money and time, and it often exacerbates existing tensions, resulting in further relationship damage even if the legal outcome is favorable for one of the disputants. The impact of this model, with its hierarchical system of appeals, is magnified by its use in other social systems such as school grievance procedures, methods of dealing with conflicts in the workplace, and current options for addressing conflicts in the health care system. In family-related disputes (both within the family and between the family and other social systems), disruption of relationships is especially unfortunate and potentially destructive, reinforcing contemporary American culture's preoccupation with what often is perceived as the erosion of the family as an institution (Hafen, 1990; Wisensale, 1992). …