Middle Men/Organization Helps Individuals Achieve Peaceful Resolutions

by Nathan Oravec

For two years now, the Washington County Community Mediation Center has helped Hagerstown citizens and those abroad resolve numerous conflicts of varied nature. Many more could benefit from the services the Center provides, notes Executive Director Carl French, but many more, it seems, are not aware that the resource even exists.

Part of the Maryland Association for Community Mediation Centers (MACMC), the Center is funded through the state judiciary, from a grant from the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, and in part by the Gaming Commission. With a home base in Keedysville, the WCCMC is one of sixteen centers in the state specializing in community mediation.

“Maryland is rapidly becoming one of the foremost states in this country for mediation,” says French, who launched the Washington County center during his tenure with the Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission (ADR), a Maryland-based initiative responsible for setting resolution standards throughout the state. French, who had been doing mediation in the area for ADR, saw an immediate need for a permanent center here, and moved to create one.

Mediation is defined as a method of resolving disputes; and that is precisely the purpose of the WCCMC. A non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, it provides free mediation to all residents of Washington County. This is accomplished by encouraging open communication and negotiation between disputing individuals, in a group setting moderated by a neutral party. From neighborly disputes (neighbor dog barking too loud) and family matters to conflicts between employer and employee, landlord and tenant, parent and child, the center, says French, “handles all kinds of cases.”

“The only cases we don’t handle,” he adds, “are those when there is evidence of physical abuse.”

The mediation process is a voluntary one. Those seeking to resolve their problems can contact the center directly to arrange for a session. To date, the WCCMC has also reached out to eight community organizations throughout the county, such as CASA and the Family Center, as well as to the Police Department, offering their services. An organization, French explains, will often call when they have a problem in need of a solution. From there, the Center contacts the disputing parties, inquiring whether or not they would be willing to meet. If all involved agree, a meeting is scheduled. “All centers in the state use a co-mediation model,” says French, meaning two mediators are always present at every session.

During a session, French explains, parties on either side of a disagreement are given the opportunity to speak and to share their thoughts and feelings on the matter, as well as any insight as to how they would like to see things resolved. The mediator’s job is just that: to provide a neutral ear - guiding the discussion and helping all to come to a mutual conclusion. “We don’t decide for them,” French stresses. “And we don’t give them legal advice. Generally, folks will come to some kind of understanding themselves.”

If the mediation process sounds like a simple one, perhaps that is the key. “Often, people just want to be heard.”

The hope is that by the end of a session, a written agreement between parties is procured. “In over 95% of our cases in which we achieve a written agreement, the parties keep the agreement,” notes French. “It’s theirs. They buy into it.”

It is important to note that those seeking mediation do not give up any rights whatsoever, and if necessary, can still proceed through the legal system. The mediation process is also entirely confidential. By law, explains French, mediators can not be subpoenaed to provide witness in court. “What is said in sessions stay there.”

Mediators for the WCCMC are all volunteers. “Last year we trained sixteen people to be mediators,” says French. Between a pool of volunteers for Allegheny and Frederick counties, nearly 35 individuals are available to the Center to provide mediation.

While there is, at present, no state certification for mediators, all volunteers spend a minimum of 50 hours in training; observing at least two mediations, and then co-mediating two sessions with experienced mediators.

“Certification is one of the things we are working on at state level,” says French. “This year the first annual convention for state centers will be held, with over 300 participants,” he continues. “Mediation is really growing. We’re getting there.”

For French, who has been a mediator himself for many years, the most important criteria for those interested in volunteering are basic. “Being able to listen... and being able to communicate ideas back to people, so they know that you’ve heard them. So they know you know what they are about.”

“Helping people find their own solutions,” says French - that is what the Washington County Community Mediation Center is about. The two big needs of the Center, right now, are achieving further funding and simply getting the word out. “A lot of people don’t know this service is available. A lot of people don’t know we’re here.”

For more information on the Washington County Community Mediation Center, call 301-432-7712, fax 301-416-2554, or e-mail WCCMC@hotmail.com.