It may be hard to believe that a lawyer would tell you that not all disputes should wind up in court. An alternative to filing criminal charges or taking matters into your own hands - from neighborhood disagreements to family impasses – is through effective and meaningful mediation. It’s a growing field and has become a mandatory step in many divorce and civil matters before the case gets into the courtroom and before a judge.
Created in 1984, the Office of the State’s Attorney for Anne Arundel County’s mediation program has resolved many disputes by empowering the parties to identify the problem, resolve it constructively and hopefully avoid future conflict. Each session is conducted by a neutral and trained professional to resolve conflicts while promoting reconciliation, settlement or compromise.
Jocelind Julien, the program’s director, facilitates mediation sessions regularly and knows that the key to a successful outcome is identifying and resolving the true underlying problem.
A mediator for more than 20 years, Julien once mediated a dispute between next-door neighbors that began shortly after the “new” neighbor moved in and pruned rose bushes between their houses. The “older” neighbor saw this and became angry, said nothing, but held a grudge and began to display aggression and animosity toward the new neighbor.
That grudge lasted for 10 years! The tension ultimately culminated in a verbal and physical confrontation between them and mutual assault charges. Prior to their criminal trial, they reluctantly agreed to try mediation. Julien remembered highlighting the neighbors’ commonalities, such as what they appreciate about their neighborhood, what they would change if they could and what drew them to live there. It worked! The conversation got going and much was discussed. Julien unearthed the older neighbors’ reaction to the rose bush incident, surprising the new neighbor who wondered why it wasn’t mentioned long before. After a bit of dialogue, the older neighbor exclaimed that perhaps the matter should have been raised the day it happened.
It was a moment of absolute clarity. Both neighbors readily agreed that in the future, if a problem arises, they will bring it to the other’s attention immediately. They shook hands and left the mediation very satisfied with the outcome. The criminal cross-charges against them were dismissed with their full support and to their relief.
Julien recalled a challenging case involving half siblings and their parent and how the family dynamic of this blended family affected their interactions.
“During mediation, it was revealed that the older sibling continuously taunted and teased the younger sibling while growing up,” Julien said. “One day, the younger sibling, who grew taller and stronger by now, had enough of the teasing and confronted the older sibling. Not to be outdone, the older sibling resorted to becoming very physical with the younger sibling. The parent tried to intervene but ultimately had to call the police for help. When the siblings and the parent came to mediation, no one wanted to discuss the matter, declaring it resolved and that there was absolutely nothing to talk about. They merely wanted to say that they were fine and go home. This is not unusual under the circumstances; sometimes people embroiled in conflict will simmer down after a while and forget the particulars of the incident altogether and want to drop the case.”
Julien recalled, “I engaged the siblings to speak about their childhood, how the relationship was with each other and with their shared parent. The last question about the relationship with the parent opened the door. The older sibling in a rush of emotion said that the relationship with the parent was good until the parent remarried and had the younger sibling. Then, everything changed! The parent didn’t seem to have enough time to spend doing the things they used to do. The older sibling didn’t know how to broach the subject and when an attempt was made, it came out as complaining about something non-related. This revelation surprised the parent, who thought it was just typical sibling rivalry. A plan was put into place for more one-on-one and family quality time and that should a matter arise, it will be quickly addressed.”
For Julien, that result is what drives her every day. “Being a mediator enables me to help bridge the gap of deadlocked communication between disputing parties and empower them to reach a meaningful outcome,” she said.
Unfortunately, these kinds of disputes that lead people to file criminal charges against their family, neighbor and even friends are not unique. They often arise out of a mix of poor communication and frustration. While only a small portion of criminal cases are recommended for mediation, we find that those who participate in the program are able to resolve an issue and leave with a mutually positive result for the parties and often the community where they live. Ms. Julien’s passion for conflict resolution has made her a valuable partner with the Office of the State’s Attorney in providing opportunities to keep people out of the courtroom and resolve their minor conflicts.
Have a matter that needs mediating? The mediation program also accepts matters that haven’t quite gotten to criminal charges yet and that could benefit from an intervention before they do. For more information, please visit www.aacounty.org/departments/sao/MediationCenter or contact us at 410-222-2287.