By: Laura Ginsberg

Through the statewide program Mediation Achieving Results for Children (M.A.R.C.H.), The 25th Judicial Circuit's family court program offers parties a practical way to reach parenting solutions.

Like its name suggests, M.A.R.C.H. Mediation uses trained, impartial mediators to help parents resolve their disputes and reach solutions that put their children first.

"Mediation is designed to help parents make a transition with the least amount of harm to their children," said Curtis Carle, M.A.R.C.H. mediator and attorney with Carle Law Offices in Salem. "Mediation tries to give people tools to communicate with each other in a negotiable atmosphere, as opposed to an argumentative atmosphere," adds Carle, who served for 10 years on the Missouri Supreme Court's family and juvenile law advisory committee.

M.A.R.C.H. Mediation began in Missouri during the spring of 1997. At that time, the 25th Judicial Ci rcuit was one of four circuits in the state chosen to pilot the program, and 25th Judicial Circuit Associate Judge and Family Court Judge Ralph J. Haslag chaired the first M.A.R.C.H. Committee.

M.A.R.C.H. Mediation has proven to be an effective alternative dispute resolution process and now is used in all 45 of the state's judicial circuits. A unique aspect of M.A.R.C.H. Mediation as part of the family court program is the inclusion of divorce cases. M.A.R.C.H. services normally are limited to cases involving modifications, paternity establishments or Family Access Motions.

A goal of the 25th Judicial Circuit's family court program is to offer alternative dispute resolution processes to parties whose cases have not been resolved within the first six months of the case's initial filing. Through the use of family court funds and M.A.R.C.H., parties will be offered two, free two-hour sessions with a trained mediator.

"Mediation provides an opportunity for parties to talk with each other in the presence of an impartial third party who will help keep the conversation respectful and constructive," M.A.R.C.H. mediator Bob Hellrung said. "The mediator does not make decisions for the parties. The mediator acts as a facilitator to further their discussions."

During mediation, parents can discuss any issues regarding their children, including custody, time with children, special or changing needs of the children, child support, taxes and even child care. Mediation sessions also can help parents make modifications to their existing parenting agreements.

"Ultimately, mediation serves to reduce family conflict because it helps people find their own solutions to the everyday problems they may have," Larry Swall, executive director of M.A.R.C.H., said. "Custody is a big legal term, but it encompasses the 365 days of the year," adds Swall, who also is a mediator, a lawyer with the firm Swall, Roffmann & Young, P.C., of Liberty, and chair of the Family Law Section of the Missouri Bar Association.

When parties reach an agreement during mediation, it allows them to decide on a parenting plan that is best suited to them and their children, rather than being forced to adhere to a decision handed down by a judge. This means parties generally are happier with the agreement and more likely to follow it. Parents have the option of making agreements made during mediation binding by submitting them to the court for approval.

"Mediation attempts to change the nature of the family court system by taking it out of an adversarial system and turning it into a cooperative one," Swall said. "Whatever you agree to when you walk out of mediation you are more likely do because you are happy with the decision reached."

According to statistics compiled by M.A.R.C.H., 75 percent of parties who participate in mediation reach an agreement, and 92 percent of those who participate are satisfied with the mediation process. Mediation also tends to be less-costly, both financially and emotionally, than going to court to resolve issues.

"Meditation is hands-down a program that has proven itself to be quite useful," Carle said. "A key component to parenting plans working is good communication and flexibility, and I think mediation helps with that. People come out of mediation with better solutions."

So what can parties expect to occur during a mediation session? According to Hellrung, all mediators have their own rules, but the goal is to help parties listen to each other and remain respectful toward one another during the process.

"The mediator can help to regulate the tone of the discussion and help keep things from escalating," Hellrung said. "People often are surprised at how well the process works."