Judge Forces Mediation in Custody Battles

Article excerpt

WAGONER -- Wagoner County Judge Darrell Shepherd has seen too many children scarred by the war called divorce.

They come to him eager to please Mom, eager to please Dad, torn because they can't please both. They come coached, blurting out things like, "Daddy drinks beer!"

Tired of seeing children used as weapons in their parents' battles, Shepherd has a new mandate in contested custody cases he hears: Divorcing couples must first go through mediation before they go through his court. "We have a lot of fighting in divorces. The parents love their kids but they get blinded by their emotions," said Shepherd, whose order took effect Jan. 1. Only a few courts in Oklahoma require mediation, but judges throughout the state increasingly are urging divorcing couples to give it a try, said Sue Tate, director of the state's Alternative Dispute Resolution System. "More and more courts are starting to realize this is a much kinder way to go through a really difficult time," said Ms. Tate, whose program provides volunteer mediators for all types of disputes. In divorce mediation, the husband and wife are each assigned a mediator. In Wagoner County, these include law students, ministers, retired teachers, veterans and other volunteers who have undergone at least 60 hours of training and have previous mediation experience. The mediators serve as a mouthpiece for each party in face-to-face negotiation sessions. They convey each side's wishes, softening any harsh language, said Ann Wilkins, director of the dispute resolution program in northeast Oklahoma. …