If you are a parent in a child custody case and can find some common ground for negotiation with your ex-spouse or ex-partner, you may wish to consider mediation prior to your court case. A mediator does not work for either you or your ex, but rather will help the two of you attempt to reach a compromise position. Often, mediation results in a firm agreement, making an ensuing court appearance a simple matter. Or, if you cannot reach agreement through mediation, your mediator might still make recommendations to the judge. Often, a judge will require mediation before a court hearing, to give the process a leg up and ensure that there are no major surprises between the two sides in court.
You should approach and engage in mediation with an open mind, and be open to compromise. In most jurisdictions, mediation is confidential; the mediator cannot divulge any information revealed during mediation in court. This provides an incentive to speak freely during mediation. However, if the mediator makes specific recommendations to the court following your sessions, some information may be divulged. Be sure you understand exactly how the process works in your jurisdiction.
If you have an attorney, he or she may not put much stock in mediation and may in fact instruct you not to agree to anything during your mediation session. That’s not a good idea, and if your lawyer takes this attitude, you may want to consider whether he or she is too aggressive for your best interests — and the best interests of your child. There are several reasons why seeking substantial agreement during mediation is a good thing. You will learn about your ex’s case — at the very least, the process can be a dry run for your court case. You will save money in legal fees — the less time spent in court, the cheaper it will be for you and your ex. Put the savings in your child’s college fund. You will be more satisfied with any agreement reached during mediation. Parents in custody battles tend to feel better about agreements they reach on their own — whether through mediation or not — than about agreements imposed on them by a judge. Finally, if you put your best foot forward during mediation, word may get back to the judge that you are willing to be cooperative, and he or she will look that much more favorably on your position.
When your session begins, the mediator will first explain how the process works; he or she may discuss how divorce and custody arrangements impact children. This is to get you to focus on your child — in whose best interest everyone must be acting. Don’t act impatient or bored; have a positive attitude. That will get you much further than a negative attitude. Next, you and your ex will each have a chance to present your respective sides of the case. Again, keep your cool and don’t be argumentative. If you have hard evidence suggesting why you should be granted custody rather than your ex, you can present this evidence, but do so in a nonjudgmental way.
Throughout the session, you should comport yourself as you would in an important business meeting. Be on time; dress neatly and conservatively. Smile and make eye contact with people who are speaking. Listen carefully; don’t make your ex or the mediator think that you aren’t interested. Do not argue, interrupt a speaker, or let your anger get the best of you; don’t joke. And don’t try to dominate the proceedings; be concise in your presentations and answers.
Mediation is intended to address the issue of custody only; don’t bring up other issues related to divorce or separation, or even child support. Unless you and your ex are already in substantial agreement and are aiming for joint physical custody — which is more and more common these days– then, during your presentation, you want to highlight why you would be a better parent. If you have negative comments to make about your ex’s behavior, focus on how this affects your child, not you; comment, for instance, that your child has been a witness to certain kinds of behavior, not you. And think about lapses in your own behavior or parenting that your ex may bring up as evidence. Be prepared to rebut negative comments about yourself in a calm, objective fashion; think carefully about what your ex may say, so you’re fully prepared and don’t recoil in shock or lash out aggressively.
Stay focused on the three major issues that will be of concern to your mediator: what your child needs, what your positive parenting skills are, and parenting skills that your ex may be lacking. And be prepared to compromise, especially if compromise can help avoid a long court battle, where you stand an even chance of losing even more. With any luck, you can reach an agreement that is most beneficial for you, and most important, for your child.