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Mediators Try To Keep Conflicts Out Of Courtroom

Originally published 2/22/2004

KEMPSVILLE — The Mediation Center of Hampton Roads is 10 years old, but the concept of settling disputes before they go to trial is still a mystery to most people.

"People think, 'What is this mediation thing?' " said David J. McDonald, president of the center, which has offices in Kempsville and Norfolk.

"It's new to a lot of people even though it's been around a long time. It's kind of hard to market what we do."

Mediation is a private, confidential means of resolving conflict, he said. A trained, impartial mediator helps those in conflict negotiate a settlement.

Mediation can save money as well as time waiting for cases to come up in court. When cases do get to court, uncontested ones are heard before contested ones.

"It's a better way to deal with conflict rather than take it out in court or out in the playground," McDonald said, meaning children can learn mediation skills to solve problems with others.

Mike McGarity had heard of mediation when he went to McDonald after filing for divorce. The case went to court, where the judge recommended mediation.

"The best thing, probably," McGarity said, "is you don't drag your family into court in front of a judge where it's cut and dried.

"Dave (McDonald) is a very comfortable person. He kind of leads you into talking about the stuff you want to talk about. There's a lot less tension than being in the courtroom. A relaxed place makes you feel better about talking."

The Mediation Center has training programs for media-tors and anyone else who wants to understand conflict resolution techniques. It sometimes mediates between parents and their teens to come up with agreements both can live with.

"A parent might have a perception the teen is way out of hand. It could be the par¬ent hadn't talked to the teen," McDonald said.

The center serves courts in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Most see the mediators about child custody, support and visitation, although there is some mediation of domestic abuse cases and landlord/tenant matters.

Mediators can help married couples set up separation agreements that put property, support and child- related agreements into a legal document.

Mediation doesn't always work smoothly or eliminate ire and angst.

"Sometimes we keep some-body behind. Walk people to their car," said mediator Thomas "Jack" Baker, who has threatened to call police when clients become threatening.

"We want to make sure people feel safe."

Sometimes mediation takes place in separate rooms if people can't get along during the process, Baker said. One time he had to sit in a chair in the hallway between two rooms where the combatants were seated.

McDonald said about 80 percent of all cases, about 100 a month, are resolved through mediation. His staff consists of six full-time paid staff and 10 certified mediators called on as needed.

Mediation is free if referred by the court; the fee is paid by the Virginia Supreme Court system. Otherwise, the Mediation Center charges $150 an hour.

"The parties can share the fee cost," he said, noting that mediation often is much cheap¬er than a trial.

· To reach the Mediation Center of Hampton Roads, call 624-6666. In Kempsville, the address is 5541 Parliament Drive, Suite 105, off Newtown Road, and is open by appointment only.

Or visit www.mediationhamptonroads.com, or e-mail Info@medlationhamptonroads.com

Rory Graham