Signe Riisalo: Child well-being goal of family mediation

Signe Riisalo.
Signe Riisalo. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The government has approved the creation of a national family mediation system to spare children from the bureaucracy of their parents separating and to safeguard child welfare, Signe Riisalo writes.

Starting a family, everyone means to pursue a harmonious coexistence of which misunderstandings and pursuant conflict are an inevitable part. Two adults can overcome problems in a partnership if both parties wish to, while paths may still lead away from one other and mutual understanding prove challenging.

In late September, the government approved the creation of a national family mediation system. It will allow parents who are separating to enter into agreements based on the well-being of their children both out of court and in the early stages of judicial proceedings.

The goal of family mediation is not to reconcile parents but reach an agreement on the child or children's future living arrangements. It is crucial to remember that agreements need to prioritize the interests of the child and that the end of a romantic relationship does not equal the end of the parental one.

A child's need for both parents does not end as a result of their relationship and cohabitation ending. The focus of family mediation is therefore on an agreement for parental cooperation in which communication with the child, child support and end or changes to shared custody can be agreed.

The main aspect of family mediation is all of it preferably taking place outside of court. It is an alternative to judicial proceedings that prescribes sessions with an independent expert (family mediator), usually someone with psychological, social or legal education, where the mediator helps the sides find mutually acceptable solutions in terms of children's living arrangements.

In most cases, couples that are in the processes of splitting up will be referred to a family mediator by a judge or local government social worker. Turning to service providers independently before disagreements escalate is seen as a future trend.

Around 4,000 people turn to courts over various matters pertaining to children every year. Increased use of family mediation services could lessen the workload of courts. It aims for less pressure on the court system and more personal agreements between parents.

Setting up a family mediation system and extrajudicial handling of matters pertaining to children's living arrangements is supported by the Supreme Court and the justice chancellor. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Villu Kõve has said that the number of family disputes that land in court has exploded and the state should create an extrajudicial conciliation mechanism.

There is currently no such legally binding and state-sanctioned system, while the government's decision might bring change by next fall. That is, should the Riigikogu also support the proposal.

Separating parents have also said that finding a solution outside of court is preferable, and that all sides are interested in giving children the best conditions under new circumstances. Participants of a service target group survey titled "My separation experience" who numbered 303 also found that the involvement of a third person who can urge people to be sensible can be beneficial in such processes.

Family mediation has been available in Estonia for over 20 years. The first family mediators were trained with support from the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1997-1998. While the service is currently offered by local governments, its availability, quality and price can vary from one area to the next.

In order to ensure nationwide availability and level quality of family mediation, it is vital to have enough trained mediators to ensure a set of service conditions and a single place families and courts can turn for the service.

Different preparatory and supportive activities have been pursued by the Social Insurance Board to better implement family mediation. Support from Norwegian and EEA financial mechanisms has been used to put together a family mediation organizational model and training program based on which training of national family mediators started this year.

Awareness is being raised concerning the law set to enter into force in 2022, with the service piloted in September. Until then, families can turn to their local government or contact the Social Insurance Board that will find the best way for the family to receive the service.

A family living together must prioritize maintenance of relationships, with support available in many forms before a decision is made to end it. Help is offered by family counselors and therapy aimed at inspiring change that would suit all sides. However, if the decision to separate has been made, it needs to be done in a way to spare children, which is why family mediation has been created.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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