Academic journal article Social Work Research

Testing Models of Justice and Trust: A Study of Mediation in Child Dependency Disputes

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Testing Models of Justice and Trust: A Study of Mediation in Child Dependency Disputes

Article excerpt

This study randomly assigned 200 parents to mediation (facilitated by master's-level social workers) or to pretrial conferences (guided by judges) to examine the effects of the dispute resolution methods on the attitudes of parents in child dependency disputes. The study also examined theories from the psychology of justice and trust literature for predicting the attitudes of the parents regarding their dissatisfaction with the juvenile court system, the unfairness of the third parties (that is, social work mediators or judges), and the degree of settlement achieved in the cases. Parents assigned to mediation perceived a higher degree of settlement in the case. But no differences in dispute method effects were observed for other dependent measures in either mediation or pretrial conferences. Justice variables were more salient than trust variables in predicting the unfairness of the third parties and the degree of settlement achieved, but not in predicting dissatisfaction with the juvenile court system. Implications of these findings for social work research and policy practice are discussed.

Key words: child dependency; conflict management; mediation; procedural justice; trust


Mediation is used in a number of areas of interpersonal conflict (Kressel, 1985; Kressel & Pruitt, 1989), including child custody disputes (Emery, Matthews, & Wyer, 1991), divorce (Beck & Sales, 2001), and child dependency matters (Baron, 1997; Firestone, 1997; McNeilly, 1997; Thoennes, 1997a). The fundamental aim of the state in dependency cases is to protect children by removing them from their home until their parents demonstrate that they are ready to care for and control them. "When a child is placed outside the home, the social service agency and the parent must agree on a service plan to effect the child's return" (Azar & Benjet, 1994; p. 254). Service plans include the responsibilities and duties of parents regarding interventions, child visitation, progress with treatment, and evidence of cooperation with service providers. They also specify the state's responsibilities in providing services to the parents. Failure of parents to comply with these plans usually results in the termination of parental fights (Jellinek et al., 1992). It is not surprising that because of the significant intrusion these plans have on parental authority, disputes often occur between parents and child protection professionals about the terms of the agreements.

Some proponents of mediation in child dependency hearings have argued that it can increase parental satisfaction with the legal process and its outcomes (McNeilly, 1997). Satisfaction is important because it helps authorities achieve voluntary compliance with court rules and regulations (Tyler, 1990, 1998). It has been argued that mediation can cause this effect because it relies on a consensus model of governance (Levi, 1998; Tyler, 1998). That is, consensus approaches to dispute resolution presumably promote agreements between parties that they "want to accept, irrespective of the dictates of established authorities" (Tyler, 1998, p. 278).

Mediation is defined as "a task oriented, time limited, alternative dispute resolution process (an alternative to litigation) wherein the parties, with the assistance of a neutral person or persons, isolate disputed issues in order to consider options and alternatives to reach consensual settlement" (Beck & Sales, 2001, p. 3). Advocates of mediation assume that mediation also can improve relationships between the parties (D. G. Brown, 1982; E. M. Brown, 1988; Camplair & Stolberg, 1990; Pearson, 1994; Pearson & Thoennes, 1985a, 1985b, 1988). If parties have better relationships, then presumably they are more likely to comply with mutually agreed on plans (Tyler, 1998). However, critics of the use of mediation in dependency matters have expressed concern that there are few negotiable items in these disputes (McNeilly, 1997; Thoennes, 1997a). …

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