Mediation and Domestic Abuse

In Wisconsin, mediation is required in all family law cases where there is a dispute regarding placement and/or custody of minor children. The definition of mediation is when the two parties meet outside of the courtroom, with a neutral third party, to work out the contested issues in their case rather than litigate them.

The problem with mediation for a couple where domestic violence is present is that mediation implies that the parties are on a level playing field. When there has been domestic violence in a relationship, the abuser and the victim are not equal, and mediation can be more harmful than helpful. Victim advocates have weighed in on this issue and do not recommend mediation in cases when there has been domestic violence present, because there is a power relationship between the parties which may go unnoticed by the mediator.

Take, for example, a wife (victim) who goes to mediation with her husband (abuser). The husband speaks to the wife calmly and cooperatively in front of the mediator. He asks the wife to please be reasonable and to work with him. In fact, he suggests that they stop using court avenues altogether and meet once a week around the kitchen table to discuss the children’s placement schedule. To the mediator, the husband seems agreeable and reasonable. However, to the wife, the kitchen table brings up the memory of the last time she was at the kitchen table with her husband, when he threw her on top of it and abused her. Silenced by fear, the wife simply sits there or, out of fear, gets up and leaves the mediation. In this example, it is likely that the mediator’s notes would categorize the wife as disagreeable or unable to work on the issues reasonably while the husband is found to be agreeable and cooperative. Knowing the domestic violence present in this example, we know that the mediator’s notes are incorrect but there is nothing to do after the mediation is concluded to change the mediator’s conclusion.

The court is allowed to make an exception for mediation if it would endanger the health or safety of one of the parties. Therefore, it is important for an abuse victim to raise this issue before the court. The court may, either with or without a hearing, agree to then waive mediation.

Definitive evidence of potential harm is the existence of a domestic abuse injunction. If a victim files an injunction against the abuser, this is compelling evidence upon which the court can waive mediation. The reality, though, is that many victims do not file injunctions for a number of reasons. An injunction is not required to waive mediation, however. If you do not have an injunction but still are fearful for your safety, you should inform the court so as to avoid this situation entirely.

Therefore, if you are a victim of domestic violence, either with or without an injunction legally protecting you, we recommend that you inform the people who can best help you going forward in your court case. This includes, but is not limited to: your attorney, the Guardian ad Litem, the mediator and the social worker.

-Madeleine Thompson-Davies