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How do we safeguard children and vulnerable adults in mediation?

As mediators, we come into contact people at a vulnerable time in their lives. This can be as a temporary or a permanent situation. Some of our clients are temporarily vulnerable due to the pain and grief of a separation. For others who were already facing challenges such as disability or mental health problems, these have been exacerbated by separation.

The Department of Health (2015) definition of a vulnerable adult is someone aged 18 or over who is, or may be, in need of community services due to age, illness or a mental or physical disability; who is, or may be, unable to take care of himself/herself, or unable to protect himself/herself against significant harm or exploitation.

In family mediation, the main issues we encounter are from domestic abuse and the impact of family breakdown upon mental health. Family relationships are often complex and can be complicated further by age, illness, disability and dependency. For those experiencing domestic violence, the risk is significantly increased at the point of leaving a violent partner. In some cases, the person carrying out the abuse may have their own problems, such as drug dependency or mental health issues.

The key considerations about whether mediation is suitable include the capacity of the person to make decisions concerning their safety, their ability to communicate their wishes, and issues relating to power imbalance and domestic abuse. The decision about suitability should always be in the best interests of the at-risk person and be the least restrictive of the person's rights and freedoms.

At referral stage, the mediator will address barriers to communication. For example, is an interrupter needed? At the initial Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) stage, which is the first meeting with the mediator and usually takes place without the other party present, we invite you to bring someone with them for support if you so choose. Where there are issues of capacity, the mediator can consider whether mediation could proceed with the support of an advocate. This can only take place with the consent of the other party.

The following are standard safeguarding procedures which apply to all of our clients:

  • Confidentiality - Personal details (address, email, telephone numbers) are always kept confidential from the other party unless consent is given to share this information. Other information shared with FMNE is also confidential, except in circumstances where we need to share this for the purposes of protecting a child or vulnerable adult.

  • Separate MIAM Appointments - Most people choose to have their initial appointment with FMNE separately from the other party. FMNE will never give out the date and time of this appointment to the other party; appointments are scheduled to avoid the parties coming into contact with each other. Clients can bring someone with them to the initial appointment for support if they wish to do so.

  • Joint MIAM Appointments - Where the parties choose to have their initial appointment together, they will each spend time alone with the mediator to facilitate safety and suitability screening.

  • Separate Waiting Areas - Mediation clients will not be left waiting together and will not be left alone together. Staggered arrival and leaving times are given to facilitate this.

  • Suitability Screening - At the start of the MIAM the mediator will explain the limits of confidentiality; specifically, that we must share information where there is unaddressed risk to a child or vulnerable adult. All clients are then asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to confirm that they understand the limits of confidentiality. The mediator will screen for suitability, including standard screening for risk to children, domestic abuse and special requirements.

  • In cases where there are ongoing but known child welfare or child protection concerns, the mediator will assess with the client whether mediation is safe and suitable. If it seems that mediation can proceed, FMNE will seek the authority of the clients to obtain further information from Children’s Services, where they are involved, before making a final decision about suitability.

  • In cases of domestic abuse, the mediator seeks to ensure that the participants are engaging in mediation without coercion, can be kept safe during the process (both emotionally and physically) and can stand their ground with the other party in decision making. Where these criteria are not present, mediation is unlikely to be suitable. Where it seems that mediation can proceed, the mediator will explore any additional support and adjustments that may be needed.

  • The mediator will discuss with clients any health issues and special requirements. This informs the suitability of mediation and any adjustments we may need to make to ensure the safety and comfort of those taking part in mediation. Where the participants are vulnerable, the mediator will seek to establish whether they are able to cope with the process and whether we are able to meet additional support needs.

  • Willingness Screening - Mediation is voluntary throughout and FMNE will never seek to persuade or pressurise participation.

There are circumstances where the mediator will need to take action to protect a vulnerable person. These situations arise as the exception rather than the rule and, wherever possible, the mediator will inform and involve the client in any protective action unless it is unsafe to do so.

  • Risk to Children - Where unaddressed risk is identified to any child, the mediator has a duty to ensure that action is taken. Depending on the severity of risk, the mediator will assist the person expressing the concern to report this and then follow up to ensure that this has been done. If the risk is immediate or serious, the mediator will take direct action to report the risk. Usually, the risk is reported to Children’s Services for the Local Authority in which the child resides; in urgent cases, we may need to contact the police.

  • Risk to Vulnerable Adults - Mediators have a duty to act upon concerns that an adult may be at risk from another person or presents a risk to themselves or others. Wherever safe, the mediator will provide information about support services and assist the person at risk to take protective action themselves; the mediator may need to follow up to ensure action has been taken. Where the risk is immediate or serious, the mediator will take direct action to report the risk. Usually this will be to the police.

Cases already in mediation will be suspended until safeguarding issues have been addressed. FMNE will obtain information from protective services such a Children’s Services or the Police to inform whether it is safe and appropriate to resume mediation once the risk has been addressed.

For cases that may come into mediation, FMNE will await the outcome of any concerns before deciding whether it is safe to proceed.

Mediation is an excellent choice for most people seeking to resolve family disputes that arise from separation or family breakdown, but it is not the right choice for everyone. If you are worried or have special requirements, tell your mediator in the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting. We will do all that we can to support and protect you and, where we can’t help through mediation, we will signpost you to other services that can help.

If you want more information about how family mediation can help you resolve issues like the ones detailed in this blog please call us on 01670 528441 or contact us via our website.

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