On a beautiful autumn day, I walked into the red brick Montgomery County courthouse annex to a nondescript back hallway. Halfway down a line of chairs along the wall, a lone man sat with his hands clasped, elbows resting on his knees, his head bowed. On a door, a plaque read: “Dispute Resolution Center, Helping People Have Difficult Conversations Since 1988”. I entered a small room where three people waited, sitting with legs and arms crossed, defensive body language at odds with the joyful bookmarks displayed on a large white board. “Avoid conflict,” “Make peace,” and “We should all get along” were written in various childish scripts along with drawings of dogs, stick figures and a bunny.
Beyond the waiting room, the first door opens to the office of Elaine Roberts, the Director of the Montgomery County Dispute Resolution Center (known as the “DRC”), one of seventeen similar organizations in Texas that provide reduced fee mediation services and conflict resolution training. As a volunteer mediator, I usually head into a conference room to mediate a case. On this visit, I sat down across from Elaine at her large desk. Framed diplomas and court admittances, including for the United States Supreme Court, hang on the wall. Elaine’s well-coiffed, short brown hair frames a welcoming, inquisitive face. Her outfit is a conservative cut yet captures her personality with the splash of a bright turquoise blouse and equally colorful earrings. She is confident in a quiet, steady way, unruffled by the constant conflict swirling around her.
Elaine has led the DRC for over three years with minimal help, a paid administrative staff of two, and around fifty volunteer mediators. Providing over a thousand mediations a year, the DRC functions as a clearing house for the local courts, sends mediators to the Justice of the Peace courts, and conducts community outreach and conflict resolution training.
Although familiar with Elaine’s role at the DRC, I was curious how she came to the DRC. A trial attorney who handled discrimination cases, Elaine was one of the first volunteers to train as a mediator in Houston. She became a member of the Harris County Dispute Resolution Center Board of Directors, explaining, “I was able to find a sense of completion in mediation that I couldn’t find in litigation.” She eventually led Texas’ disability rights legal services, responsible for fourteen offices across the state. She left that position when her husband received an offer to manage an American company in Australia. Upon their return to the U.S., they settled in Montgomery County. She was working in the Houston Mayor’s office, a long daily commute, when the DRC job became open. From the interview, she learned it was a well-respected organization with judicial support and realized, “I would be doing something special if I took the job.” She turned down a more lucrative offer from a hospital to take the DRC position.
I asked Elaine her opinion on the biggest misconception about mediation. She identified two, “In our area, some people look at mediation as a way to strong-arm parties into doing what the attorneys want them to do. I don’t see that as the basis for mediation. I think it is to let the parties make their own agreements or not and to give them the forum to talk about their dispute.” As for the second, Elaine believes some attorneys think facilitative mediation isn’t effective. In her opinion, that comes from a lack of understanding of the different purposes of the types of mediation. As she elaborated, “When parties have an ongoing relationship, such as co-parenting a child, they need a process to re-establish communication to work together in the best interest of the child, even if they don’t like each other. Mediation can do that while going to trial doesn’t.”
Over the years, Elaine has found some people resistant to mediation because they’re not over their anger and grief. The healing process needs to progress before they’re ready to compromise. Sometimes they are scared that somebody is going to take the other person’s side. “A good mediator alleviates that fear in the first few minutes.”
Elaine wants people to know that they have an option other than litigation. Many people tell her, “I wish I had known about the center when I paid a fortune for mediation during my first divorce.” or, “I wish I had known before I had the judge decide where my child was going to live.” She also wants the program to reach all ethnic and minority groups by offering mediation in different languages and in locations accessible to citizens with limited transportation. “The mediators need to be relatable to the changing demographics of Montgomery County.”
While the small staff does a great job, even one more part-time person would make a meaningful difference. They use their limited funding efficiently and have gotten many things donated. Social media offers a low cost way to reach people. Students from the University of Houston have volunteered IT services. Last year, Elaine participated in the Leadership Montgomery County program to spread the word among business and government leaders. The DRC also offers speakers to any organization that requests one.
As one of the volunteer mediators, I wondered what it’s like to manage a volunteer organization. Elaine chuckles, “It’s been surprisingly good and challenging.” She’s proud of the many talented mediators with long-term relationships with the DRC. Likewise, the DRC is committed to training for high quality mediators. Elaine claims, “The best thing about running the DRC has been the quality of the people I work with every day, we have volunteers with a lot of integrity and intelligence.” I smiled and told her, “You didn’t have to say that, you are very diplomatic.” At that, we both laughed.
The Board of Directors was “skeptical” when Elaine proposed an innovative art contest to promote peaceful conflict resolution among school children. The goal is to teach children alternatives to using violence or other destructive means to resolve conflict. Unfortunately, many children do not learn that lesson at home. Judges and other local dignitaries sift through creative entries to choose the winners. The top designs are made into bookmarks distributed for free. With over two thousand entries last year, the annual art contest has been a rousing success.
Other than mediation and community outreach, I asked Elaine if there are other ways for the DRC to serve the public. Elaine’s unhesitating response was, “I’ve always thought a restorative justice program would be amazing. If the DRC could convince the county authorities to send more of the nonviolent, minor criminal cases to mediation, it could make victims of crime feel like someone listened to them and help them receive any possible reimbursement.” She also thinks it would increase the likelihood that perpetrators could be restored to a good community relationship rather than going to jail. Studies show it helps prevent crime by reducing recidivism.
Recently, the DRC and officers from the Conroe Independent School District Police Department received Peace Officer Training from Brad Heckman of the New York Peace Institute. Brad is known and respected for his ground-breaking mediation training with the New York Police Department. Designed to sharpen peace officer’s mediation skills to assist them with their difficult work, the DRC and police officers participated in both mediation training and a “train the trainer” workshop with Brad for a week. The following week, the DRC and police officers trained another group of Conroe I.S.D. officers in mediation skills. The DRC was thrilled to help teach police another tool to de-escalate conflict for the good of the community.
Given her success with the DRC, Elaine has advice for starting a volunteer mediation center. There is a practical need to convince county officials that mediation is effective and saves taxpayer money. She recommends using available studies and polling the seventeen Texas centers on how they got started - what worked and what didn’t. “Even if elected officials don’t understand mediation, they do understand taxpayer savings and making government, including courts, more efficient.” Her eyes sparkling and her voice resolute, Elaine emphasized, “You have to go in armed with that data. You have to find an example of a successful center in a community that looks like yours and show the elected officials how it could succeed in your area.” Elaine may spend her days promoting nonviolent cooperation but it’s clear she advocates vigorously for accessible conflict resolution for everyone in the community.
Originally published on the Texas Bar Blog, September 29, 2017, by Guest Blogger Tammy S. Haynes