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Mediation good alternative to litigation

April 25, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

The sign in front of Donna Bage's Sharpsburg Pike office in Hagerstown reads, "Mediate Don't Litigate."

It is a statement that the Hagerstown resident, who has been a practicing licensed clinical social worker since 1976, stands firmly behind.

"This is my life," she said.

Helping families cope with divorce is more than a job to her, Bage said.

"Mediation is the biggest change in the last 100 years, and a huge improvement for families that are going through divorce," Bage said. "Marriages come to an end, but families do not."

In mediation, the separating couple cooperates to "design the terms of the restructured family," Bage said.

Mediation is less expensive, less adversarial and less time consuming than litigation, and more likely to produce an outcome that matches the interests of the disputants, according to an article on the Alternative Dispute Resolution and Mediation Resources Web site.

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Both parents are active participants in the mediation process. They cooperate to come up with custody compromises, division of marital property and mutually agreeable spousal and child support payments, Bage said.

The mediator controls the process, but the participants control the outcome, she said.

It is this input that makes divorcing spouses more likely to comply with agreements gleaned from mediation than with court-imposed arrangements, Bage said.

"Who wants a stranger to determine what's going to happen in your life," she added.

Bage said the mediator, who is a neutral third party, has a varied role.

The mediator manages the process, helps generate options, facilitates communication, distinguishes interests from positions, and deals with conflict in a positive fashion, she said.

Although the state Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission is pushing for certification in Maryland, Bage said she currently follows a structured mediation model.

This model requires 60 training hours and observation of two full mediations, which take from three to 10 hours each to complete, she said.

After establishing ground rules, and securing a safe and trusting atmosphere, the mediator "gets down to the nitty-gritty," she said.

Bage said she guides her clients through a progression of steps ordered from the easiest to the most difficult issues to be agreed upon.

The mediation process is not about rights, but fairness and meeting needs, Bage said. It focuses first on the estranged couple's "common ground," the children.

"The best interests of the children are paramount," Bage said. "Separating and divorcing couples don't want to sacrifice their child."

As comfort with compromise builds, the parties agree on other issues such as division of marital property and spousal and child support payments, Bage said.

The mediator also educates the divorcing couple by explaining the options, she added.

Communication is encouraged through active listening techniques, and asking many questions in the quest for clarity, Bage said.

When emotions run high, clients are free to call for time out, she said.

"We just keep on keeping on until they have agreed," Bage said.

She said mediation sessions are tailored to individual situations, and the process can last from three to 12 hours, depending upon family circumstances. In the end, clients have cooperated to reach a mutual agreement, which they take to an advisory attorney, Bage said.

After cooperating to determine their futures, the divorcing parties often are on better terms at the end of the process than they were at the beginning, Bage said.

She is convinced mediation makes a contribution.

"It really works for divorcing couples and their kids," she said.

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