Local dispute-resolution program sees growing caseload

Every day, a Johnson County program works with families struggling with divorce, custody battles and child support disputes.

The goal is to help resolve arguments, get cases through the court system faster and help families reach a resolution so they can move on.

In nearly a decade, the county's court-mediation program, also called the alternative dispute-resolution program, has doubled its number of cases. Last year, the program took on nearly 700 cases, director Dustin Matern said.

That mainly includes divorces, paternity cases and parenting coordination, such as with visitation issues. And even though the number of divorce cases filed has fallen during the past couple of years, other cases are on the rise, local officials said.

Johnson County Circuit Court has seen an increase in the number of resolved cases coming back, such as if a parent is looking to increase child support payments or wanting to move elsewhere and has to settle issues with visitation, Judge Mark Loyd said. Right now, he has a case involving a couple that has been divorced for more than a decade but has been back to court six times, Loyd said.

Often, instead of trying to resolve all those issues in a court hearing, the cases can instead go to the mediation program. The program uses multiple mediators to work with the people involved in a case and try to reach agreements on issues they can't agree on, Matern said.

When the local program began in 2006, Matern and two other attorneys were the only ones doing mediations. Now, they use 13 to 14 attorneys to help with the caseload.

With more mediators to handle cases, and more using their own office space for meetings, the program can resolve cases quicker, Matern said. Their goal is to reach a resolution within 90 days of receiving a case, Matern said.

The program is contracted by the county and charges fees to the people involved in mediations. Fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income, so anyone making less than $30,000 per year gets a significant break on the cost, Matern said.

One of the changes they had to make this year, as their caseload increased, is to hire a part-time assistant who can help with collecting unpaid fees. The program's collection rate is high, likely around 80 or 85 percent, Matern said.

And one change they have seen recently is in more middle- to moderate-income families, who don't need a break on the fees, using mediation, Matern said.

The program is building a reputation in the county, and more attorneys feel comfortable using it, Loyd and Matern said.

Franklin attorney Dustin Huddleston has seen it help people reach a resolution without needing a court hearing, which helps finish cases quicker and allows people to move on with their lives, he said.

In mediations, both parties have a part in reaching a resolution, which is beneficial, Franklin attorney Lynn Gray said.

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