This Should Never Happen Again

Sep 22, 2017   //   by Erickson Mediation   //   Blog  //  Comments Off on This Should Never Happen Again

Steve Erickson
by Steve Erickson

We should never, ever again have to read about a mom or dad killing themselves and their children after losing a bitter custody dispute.

Unfortunately, however, this type of case is not entirely uncommon. Kathleen Russell, of the Center for Judicial Excellence, reported at least 287 cases since 2008 of parents in custody fights who killed their children (see below for cite). These instances, along with the recent local case of the Orono woman who killed her 5-year-old son and herself, are tragic – not only for the parties and the immediate family – but for the family court system as a whole.

I feel deeply for all those affected by this tragedy – and I can relate. As a young attorney in 1976, I had a similar experience when I lost a client in a contested divorce. I represented Lorraine Brown, the mother of four children, in July 1976, and she was killed by her husband the day after a temporary hearing in family court. I will never forget her.

For me, I began to question operating in the court system that did more to create volatile hostility than meaningfully resolve it. I questioned there being only a “winner” and a “loser,” even though the best course of action would be for the clients to work together as parents. But as an attorney going in to family court, if I said to my client “We must do everything possible to help the other side get a just result,” I could be criticized by a client for violating my duty to be a zealous advocate.

Then, in 1977, I learned about divorce mediation. I began to see that there was a better way than litigation. After 40 years as a mediator, I have discovered the following:

1. The adversarial system for families is like a strong undertow at the beach, continually pulling parents apart, creating conflict by the way it goes about its work.

2. The courts cannot teach cooperation, because that is not what they are designed to do.

3. Most parents have within them the capacity to cooperate as separate parents, if they can tap into that spark of goodness that all parents have in caring for their children.

4. A professional family mediator can be exceedingly influential in assisting parents to cooperate, thereby avoiding the battle. Here’s how:

  • We help parents build parenting plans rather than investigate or attempt to prove who is the less qualified parent.
  • We ask different questions, directing parents toward the conference table – questions that require joint action and peaceful dialogue. For example: “What future parenting plan can we help you build?” instead of “How can we prove the other parent less worthy, (bad, defective as a parent, etc.) in order to label that parent the non-custodial, visiting parent?”
  • We provide a structure for people to influence the way they act.
  • Consider the Orono mother who chose litigation over court-ordered mediation. Would it not have been better for a mediator to say to both parents, “Folks, you do not have to fight over custody – it is too damaging. Instead, I am going to help both of you realize that your five-year-old needs you, as the parents, to resolve your conflict. He loves both of you! As your mediator, I will guide you through a system of structured discussions, and through these discussions, you will likely see that you can only get a good result for yourself when you also help the other also obtain a good result.”

    Kathleen Russell quoted in USA Today, Oct. 25, 2014 reported by Marisol Bello in “When Parents Kill: FBI Data Reveal Disturbing Patterns.”

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    Erickson Mediation Institute MN
    Erickson Mediation Institute
    3600 American Blvd West
    Suite 105
    Minneapolis, MN 55431
    (952) 835-3688