A personal peace

The utilitarian conference room at The Mediation Center in downtown Asheville may seem a less-than-inspiring setting. But within those functional confines, the seeds of understanding often sprout and take root between feuding neighbors, angry ex-business partners, exasperated family members and other local folks locked in conflict.

Several blocks away, the cheerful, toy-filled interior of The Family Visitation Center provides a neutral ground where separated or divorced parents can either deliver their children for visits or spend monitored time with them.

Peace is often viewed in global terms. But the work of these two local nonprofits reveals that efforts toward peace often begin, on a much smaller scale, at the individual level.

Ego vs. “we go”

The Mediation Center helps foster a more peaceful community by helping people learn how to communicate and resolve their own conflicts, says Executive Director Ann Flynn.

Strategically situated next door to the Buncombe County Courthouse, the Center provides a distinct alternative to the court system — though the courts’ undoubted authority still gives them particular appeal for many people who’ve reached their limits.

“They feel like the court system has a lot of teeth, and they want their case to be heard in court,” Flynn observes.

But Flynn wants folks to realize that they could turn to The Mediation Center first — before, say, a seemingly simple boundary dispute prompts someone to swear out a warrant on their neighbor for trespassing.

Mediation aims to give all parties to a conflict a chance to be heard in a nonthreatening environment, Flynn explains. In each dispute, two trained, certified mediators help the warring sides talk to each other in an effort to resolve their differences. But it’s the people involved in the dispute — not the mediators — who arrive at a mutually acceptable solution, she notes.

“Mediation, hopefully, creates a win/win where both parties walk away feeling, one, they were heard, and they had input into the end product,” says Flynn.

Not surprisingly, she is quick to extol the benefits of mediation. First off, it’s cheaper than going to court. (And it’s cheaper still to begin with The Mediation Center: People who contact the Center on their own are charged sliding-scale fees, whereas those referred by the courts have to cough up a flat $60 per case.) Mediation also offers feuding players a chance to come up with their own solution rather than having a judge or jury dictate one. Participants are free to bring their lawyers along to mediation if they wish. And if the two sides can’t agree, they can still fall back on the courts for resolution.

Established in 1984, The Mediation Center has a variety of programs designed to fit the needs of different groups, such as community members, families, youths (including a restorative-justice program for youthful offenders) and parents waging custody battles. The Center also offers training and facilitation services. In fiscal year 2001-02, The Mediation Center handled 1,421 cases; about 60 percent of them (855 in all) were referrals from the court system, including from judges or the District Attorney’s Office, Flynn reports.

Mediator Glenda McDowell finds that the biggest hurdle for mediation participants is learning to listen to one another. People in conflict often are so focused on winning the dispute that they haven’t stopped to hear the other side.

“We often say, ‘It’s more about my ego than we go,’ ” notes McDowell. She also directs of The Mediation Center’s Life Skills program, which teaches communication skills to young people and their families through a nine-week class. Most program participants are referred through the juvenile-justice system or local schools.

“We put ourselves in positions that it’s very hard to hear others because of who we are,” McDowell explains. “It’s hard for the chef to hear the cook.”

At the same time, however, McDowell also voices admiration for mediation participants who make a good-faith effort to bridge those challenging communication gaps, noting, “The human spirit still needs to be applauded.”

“A haven for peace”

A strikingly different approach to peacekeeping is employed at The Family Visitation Center, housed in the former parish house of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in central Asheville. The center provides a neutral setting where estranged parents can drop off their children for monitored visits or exchanges. One of the Center’s key functions, in fact, is keeping those estranged parents apart.

“That ensures that the child is going to be able to interact with each parent individually and on their own terms,” explains Sue Schumacher, client-services director for the agency.

Almost all of the parents who use The Family Visitation Center are referred by the court system. Situations vary, but common reasons for resorting to the Center’s neutral territory include a history of domestic violence, mental-health problems, substance abuse or other behavior that raises concerns about child safety. In addition, recently separated parents may still be in the grip of strong feelings or be locked in a bitter custody battle. And parents who haven’t seen their children recently may be easing back into the relationship.

Strict rules help ensure that parents avoid face-to-face contact. The three-story facility has two parking lots and several entrances, and each half of an estranged couple is instructed to use different ones. During a typical exchange, the “downstairs” parent waits in the comfortable basement playroom until the child arrives with the “upstairs” parent. A staff member walks the child through the house and down the stairs to the waiting parent. In the meantime, the upstairs parent leaves the premises. Fifteen minutes later, the downstairs parent and child may depart together.

During monitored visits, a staff member stays in the room while parent and child play games and interact with each other. Meanwhile, a security officer (who is usually out of sight) monitors the video feeds from cameras placed around the center and in the parking lots.

“This is a peaceful, neutral, safe space for children,” says Executive Director Heidi Stewart. “And they know when they come here they can have a peaceful visit with the parent.”

Although staff members do file reports for the court system, they make no recommendations and take pains not to take sides between parents, notes Stewart (who’s also an attorney). And though the system may seem extreme, it seems to work. Unquestionably, it is preferable to what many local parents did before the Center opened a year-and-a-half ago, exchanging their kids either in parking lots or at the magistrate’s office, says Stewart. Sometimes those encounters resulted in the father duking it out with the mother’s new boyfriend, reveals Schumacher. In other cases, working out the details of exchanges resulted in one parent accusing the other of making harassing phone calls.

“It became a criminal issue between parents,” Schumacher recalls. And if one parent had a domestic-violence protective order in place — and there were no family members available to assist with the exchange — the other parent couldn’t see the child at all, Stewart explains.

“It’s traumatic enough for a child to be exposed to domestic violence or arguing between parents. But then to not have contact with the parent …” she says, her voice trailing off. “Their whole world is turned upside down. They need to know Mommy’s OK and Mommy still loves them, or vice versa.” Adds Schumacher, “We can provide this haven of peace for the child during this time while the emotions are really high.”

The inspiration for establishing the Family Visitation Center came when local social worker Janis Costas learned about the idea at a conference she attended. That led to a community meeting in 1998, at which about 30 people (including attorneys and judges) came together to devise a solution to the problem, explains Stewart. The nonprofit was founded the following year, and grants from foundations and individual donors enabled the doors to open in July 2001. It’s now one of two such facilities in North Carolina (with a third about to open in Greenville, N.C.) and one of about 150 supervised-visitation centers worldwide, Stewart reports.

Along with grants and donations, The Family Visitation Center is partly funded by client fees. Each parent is charged up to $10 per exchange. The fee for a supervised visit ranges from $25-$50 per hour, though some parents qualify for financial aid, notes Stewart.

In addition, the Center serves as a go-between, conveying messages about the child. After several months of using The Family Visitation Center, says Schumacher, families whose communication was initially very limited and mostly loaded with blame often start writing helpful notes to each other about their child’s behavior.

“I think it’s because of the atmosphere here,” suggests Schumacher. “It’s a peaceful, calming time. They know what to expect, and they’re ready to expect it more and more after they’ve been here for a few months.”

To learn more about The Mediation Center, call 251-6089. For info on The Family Visitation Center, call 225-0740.

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