Study researches effectiveness of mediation in custody disputes

Author: Renee Hochstetler

Margaret Brinig

A joint project between the Notre Dame Law School’s Legal Aid Clinic and the College of Arts and Letters’ Center for Children and Families will examine the effectiveness of an intervention for parents involved in child custody disputes. Margaret Brinig, the Law School’s Fritz Duda Family Chair in law, E. Mark Cummings, professor and Notre Dame Chair in Psychology, and Michael Jenuwine, clinical professor of law and concurrent faculty in psychology, are co-principal investigators on the Family Mediation Project.

In this project, “we’re dealing with custody disputes that are referred to us by the courts here in St. Joseph County,” Brining says. “They’re either couples who are divorcing and can’t resolve custody themselves, or they’re paternity actions where the couple has never been married, perhaps never lived together.”

Parents are referred to the project to participate in mediation as a means of resolving disagreements about custody of their children. Mediation is an attempt to resolve disputes outside of the normal court process that is facilitated by mediators educated in the theory and practice of this form of alternative dispute resolution. Students enrolled in the Law School’s Applied Mediation program developed and run by Jenuwine serve as mediators for project participants.

In addition to mediation, some parents will participate in a parent program designed by Cummings and colleagues. Based on Cummings’ emotional security theory and growing out of an ongoing program of research, this particular program is aimed at educating parents about the potential consequences for children of ongoing conflict between parents, and providing parents with concrete skills for communicating effectively with one another.

The primary questions addressed in this research regard the mediation and parent education process, participants’ satisfaction with that process, and the long term outcomes for parents and children.

Participants will respond to surveys at various points in the study and researchers on the Family Mediation Project will incorporate these data into future interventions and clinical trials.

The study, which is underway this fall, is unusual because lawyers rarely get involved in research that involves random assignment to controls, says Brinig.

The project is funded by a Strategic Academic Planning Committee research grant. Co-sponsors include the College of Arts and Letters and the Law School. The law students will receive credit through the Applied Mediation courses.

Originally published by Renee Hochstetler, Office of Research at on July 15, 2011.