The full child information model. Comparisons to a child inclusive approach

Written by Anthony Syder

I was fortunate enough to attend the 2019 College of Mediators annual conference in London last month. The college of mediators is a training and accreditation body – the equivalent to the likes of AMINZ and Resolution Institute in New Zealand. One of the workshops I attended was led by Adrian Wright, a practicing family mediator and PPC (Professional Practice Consultant / Supervisor).

Adrian has created over the last few years his own spin on a child focussed approach as opposed to child inclusive practice which is more common than not here in the UK and actually required by the UK Ministry of Justice to be promoted as the ‘best practice’ approach during the MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting).

For me, a lot of what Adrian discussed felt like second nature, it is the way most of us have been mediating in New Zealand since the beginning of FDR due in my opinion, to a lack of accessible training that covers various thoughts and approaches used in many other jurisdictions and in the absence of best practice guidelines or regulations around a child inclusive mediation process being offered in New Zealand.

The difference in Adrian’s approach was the structure that he abides by to ensure that he has a full understanding of each child at the beginning of the mediation and that the focus is correctly placed on the children and their interests rather than the various areas of disagreement between the parties.

The ‘Full Child Information Model’ or FCIM requires the parties to begin the joint session by speaking to the mediator about each child, from oldest to youngest and gathering information about their lives as an individual rather than being grouped together as the ‘children’. This approach means that there is discussion from the outset about the individual needs of each child based on their age, their interests and their own views – it helps to identify where one or both parties feel a relationship gap may be missing or requiring particular attention and enables the children to be brought theoretically into the room from the beginning.

While I agree that it is necessary to discuss each child as an individual, acknowledging their own agency and opinions, the lack of flexibility in the model is something that I don’t know would work with my own personal practice and this was raised in the workshop. Adrian agreed that in order for the model to work you would need to ensure that you are still able to practice authentically and for him having a directive (or pro-active as many mediators here like to call it) approach comes naturally and is something he is comfortable with and has resulted in many resolutions being reached in his own practice.

Following on from the conference I decided to trial the model across two of my mediations. The first involved one child, an 8 year old and it was useful to hear the parents discussing quite happily the various sports that he enjoys and how he is with his teacher and class mates. The model worked well, it set the tone and established an immediate common ground and agreement that the parties were both at mediation for their son, and we progressed from there.

On the second occasion however, I pulled away from the model as the situation was different in terms of the amount of involvement each party had on a day to day level with the children. This matter involved 3 children and the parents were in different geographic locations. I felt speaking at length about each child was inappropriate given that the main driver (at least on the surface) for the initiating party to come to mediation was that they are missing out on their children’s lives and as a result would have little to contribute.

I couldn’t help but think that to begin a mediation in this way would only make them feel worse and increase the power imbalance that had been raised in the initial meeting and in the assessment notes from the Resolution Coordinator.

Personally, I have always preferred a child focussed approach at least initially given that we have the luxury of 12 hours and the flexibility to use them in whatever way will work best for the family. I believe there must be a good reason and clear objective to begin a child inclusive process and that this should not be entered into without all options being discussed with the guardians.

I understand that children have the right to an opinion on matters affecting their lives and the right for that opinion to be properly heard and considered – in fact dependant on the age of the child, this alone may be enough to begin the child inclusive process, but I also believe that the same result can be achieved without necessarily directly involving the child in the mediation process - speaking with a stranger about matters that are deeply personal and that they know their guardians are disputing.

It has made me think - how can we as FDR providers find that balance, and to what extent, if any, is it our role to do so?

Do we have an obligation to ensure the child has their opinions heard under the Family Dispute Resolution Act 2013 given that section 11 relating to the duties of FDR providers states that we must facilitate discussion between the parties and to assist them in a resolution that best serves the welfare and best interests of all children involved in the dispute?

I believe it will always be a balance given that every family is different and that individual families will have constantly changing dynamics on a year to year or even session to session basis. The intent behind Adrian’s Full Child Information Model is great, and it is one that works well for him and no doubt a lot of other family mediators. In my opinion however, the practical application in most FDR matters requires a great deal of flexibility so that we can continue to create a unique mediation process that fits the individual needs of each family at that point in time.

The child inclusive v child focussed discussion is one that has been written and presented about probably more than any other issue in family mediation across the last ten years and this was also true throughout the family justice review process earlier this year.

I believe that this is because there is not one correct model, and that there shouldn’t be - that’s the joy of mediation! But as mediators we should be educated and aware of the advantages and disadvantages as well as the different practical and technical skills required for both models.

As you can likely gather, this is an area that I have particularly mixed opinions on, and I would really value the thoughts and different approaches of my colleagues on this matter as it is something that is heavily discussed, debated and questioned.

About the author

Anthony is a mediator, facilitator, adjudicator and Client Manager of FairWay’s Family Services. He is a member of the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand (AMINZ) and an accredited Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) provider.

Prior to joining FairWay, Anthony worked in the public sector and studied law (LLB) at the University of Waikato gaining enrolment as a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand early in 2015. He completed his graduate diploma in Dispute Resolution through Massey University in 2016 and recently completed his Masters in Human Rights at the Auckland University of Technology.

If you would like to get in touch with Anthony, please contact fdr@fairwayresolution.com