Support for the option of alternative dispute resolution for cases reporting high levels of intimate partner violence

Support for the option of alternative dispute resolution for cases reporting high levels of intimate partner violence

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Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and Family Dispute Resolution: A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Shuttle Mediation, Videoconferencing Mediation, and Litigation | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2021, Vol. 27, No. 1, 45–64


Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, Indiana University

Connie J. Beck, University of Washington at Tacoma

Amy G. Applegate, Indiana University

Jeannie M. Adams, District of Columbia Superior Court, Washington, DC

Fernanda S. Rossi, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, Menlo Park, California, and Stanford University

Lily J. Jiang and Claire S. Tomlinson, Indiana University

Darrell F. Hale, District of Columbia Superior Court, Washington, DC


This randomized controlled trial, involving parents seeking to resolve their separation- or divorce-related disputes and reporting high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV), compared return-to-court (traditional litigation, n = 67 cases) to 2 mediation approaches designed to protect parent safety (i.e., shuttle, n = 64 cases; videoconferencing, n = 65 cases) at a court-annexed mediation division. We present immediate outcomes, which showed some favorable results for mediation. Both mediation approaches were perceived as safe by mediators, and parents felt safer in mediation than in traditional litigation. Parents in mediation were also more satisfied with the process than parents in traditional litigation. Return-to-court cases took 3 times as long to reach final resolution as mediation cases. Mediators tended to prefer shuttle over videoconferencing, and videoconferencing cases were half as likely to reach agreement as cases in shuttle. Through coding the content of the document that resolved case issues, we found no statistically significant group differences in legal custody, physical custody, or parenting time arrangements, and few differences in the likelihood of the document specifying a variety of arrangements (e.g., how to handle missed parenting time) or including safety provisions (e.g., supervised child exchanges). We conclude that in cases with parents reporting concerning levels of IPV, when both parents are independently willing to mediate, mediation designed with strong safety protocols and carried out in a protected environment by well-trained staff may be an appropriate alternative to court.



intimate partner violence, domestic violence, family dispute resolution, family mediation, divorce and parental separation

Summary of the Research

“Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and parental separation and divorce are major, often overlapping, problems. U.S. National surveys suggest lifetime rates of IPV of approximately one third for women and one quarter for men and at least 10% of children are exposed to family violence each year. In addition, 40–45% of U.S. marriages end in divorce, affecting 1 million children per year. Further, over 40% of U.S. births are to unmarried mothers, and over two thirds of cohabiting unions are disrupted within 3 years, affecting more children. IPV and parental separation often are intertwined. IPV is a prominent reason for relationship dissolution, and more than half of cases of separating parents entering family mediation report physical IPV” (p. 46).

“Both IPV and parental separation increase risk of negative outcomes for children. Children exposed to IPV may experience a host of psychological, social, and academic problems. Such risks may not be eliminated by parental separation, particularly as some perpetrators continue intruding in the IPV victims’ lives, abusing the other parent. Regarding parental separation, relative to children in intact families, children in divorced families have double the risk of psychological and behavioral problems and an increased risk of academic and social problems” (p. 46).

“Children’s risks from parental separation are decreased when parents are able to effectively parent and maintain good parent–child relationships and when there is less parental conflict and better coparenting following the separation. Traditional, adversarial litigation approaches (e.g., a divorce trial) may work against such outcomes; for example, possibly increasing parental conflict. In contrast, family mediation is an alternative dispute resolution procedure hoped to better outcomes for children by decreasing parental conflict. Mediation is believed to empower parents by giving them increased self-determination over the outcomes of their separation” (p. 46).

“The issue of whether mediation can be a safe and appropriate dispute resolution option for separating or divorcing parents reporting a history of high or concerning levels of IPV is controversial but, to our knowledge, had never previously been empirically investigated. The current study was an RCT comparing traditional litigation to two mediation approaches designed to protect parent safety in cases with IPV (i.e., shuttle and videoconferencing). The study was conducted in a court-annexed mediation division in a major metropolitan area” (p. 60).

“The current study findings do not definitively favor one specialized form of mediation over another (i.e., shuttle vs. videoconferencing). There are suggestions in the data that shuttle mediation might be preferable, as it was more likely to lead to agreement and mediators seemed to prefer it. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, many mediators are moving to online mediation. Indeed, the need for remote methods during this health crisis has led to the consideration of videoconferencing methods for multiple forms of family law interventions (e.g., see a thoughtful consideration of videoconferencing for child custody evaluations in this journal). Thus, one might consider whether the findings suggest that it is worth the risk of seeing parents reporting IPV in person (i.e., as in the current study shuttle approach) rather than using the videoconferencing approach of the current study (i.e., parents and mediators all able to interact). It is important to note that future researchers could more directly address this question by conducting work combining our two approaches, such as conducting shuttle mediation via video technology (i.e., each party only interacts with the mediator, not the other party). In the meantime, longer term outcomes and additional research are needed to more clearly understand if videoconferencing mediation, as structured in this study, is as safe and appropriate as shuttle mediation for cases reporting high levels of IPV” (p. 62).

Translating Research into Practice

“Before this study, there were experts who argued that mediation for cases with high levels of IPV might be detrimental and harmful. The current findings do not support that position, at least with respect to immediate outcomes. Instead, they provide some empirical support for the option of alternative dispute resolution for cases reporting high levels of IPV, with several important caveats. Study participants, independently and without pressure from the other parent, consented to the study understanding that there was a two-thirds chance they would be assigned to mediation. Thus, parents were willing to try mediation. As such, our findings do not support any effort to mandate mediation for parents reporting high levels of IPV. In fact, this research in no way suggests that families with a history of IPV should be mandated to participate in mediation. Also, it is important to note that the types of mediation offered were designed to be safe for parents with high levels of IPV and were delivered in a setting that maximized safety. The interventions were designed by a team of experts on IPV, mediators received an additional 2 days of training in how to mediate cases reporting IPV, and that mediator training was conducted by a mediator and team well versed in IPV issues. In addition, the Multi-Door Division was part of the court, had security guards, required parents entering the building to go through a metal detector, and mediation was conducted in rooms with panic buttons. Thus, the current study findings may not be generalizable to other settings that do not provide these safe environments and/or whose mediators are less well trained in the dynamics of IPV. Importantly, the current study findings also say nothing at all about the option of joint mediation for cases reporting high levels of IPV. Again, special approaches were used, not joint mediation” (p. 62).


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