by Sue Ann Rybak
Most parents of adolescents would agree that raising a teenager can be difficult – raging hormones combined with a desperate desire to be independent can often result in a battle of wills between parents and children.
For 30 years, Good Shepherd Mediation Program (GSMP), 5356 Chew Ave., a neighborhood justice center in Germantown, has been helping to keep the peace through mediation and conflict resolution programs.
Shakeya Currie Foreman, a restorative justice specialist at GSMP, said every parent should have a mediator on speed dial.
Vanessa Stevens, of Germantown, agreed.
“It really does take a village to raise a child,” said Stevens, a mother of three children who benefited from Good Shepherd’s Parent-Youth Mediation Program when her teenage son was going through a difficult time.
Foreman said the Mediation Program helps parents and their children to iron out whatever conflicts they are experiencing. She added that they usually leave with a written agreement designed to help them navigate those difficult situations that sometimes occur with parents and young adults.
“Because mediation is a voluntary process, we have to ask the other party [the young person] if they are willing to come in,” Foreman said. “That part gets a little dicey when you have to call a 16- or 17-year-old and ask them if they want to sit down with their parents to discuss some issues they are having.”
She said the first step is to assure them that the role of the mediator is to be a neutral third party.
“It’s important to let them know they [the young people] will have a voice in this process,” Foreman said. “Sometimes, this is the first time that anyone has ever reached out to them in this way.
“This is not going to be a gang-up on the teenager meeting,” she said. “Oftentimes, people think that mediation, in general, is a place where they can bring someone they are in conflict with and the mediator is going to be the voice of reason that tells the other party that they are wrong. It’s not our place to decide who is right or wrong.”
She said mediation allowed young people to speak their piece in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.
“Our job is really to be a neutral third party – to listen to both sides and not to advocate for either side but advocate for the mediation process,” Foreman said.
Vanessa Stevens came to Good Shepherd in 2009 when she and her son were having difficulty communicating.
“In the past, he was always very open and willing to talk to me,” Stevens said. “He used to be able to share things with me. But then, he didn’t feel like he could trust me enough to come talk to me. It frightened me because I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t want to lose my son to the street.”
Stevens said that was when she decided to get professional help.
“I knew I had to find a place where he would be able to express himself and where I would be able to listen and understand what was going on,” she said.
“Initially he didn’t want to come in,” Stevens said. “’No, I don’t want to go’ was his reply. He said ‘Everything is okay.”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “We have to go.”
She recalled sitting in the parking lot and thinking “Well, we’re here.”
Stevens said after the first meeting she was worried that her son would refuse to come back.
After the meeting, his response caught her off guard.
“He asked ‘when are we coming back?’ – that’s how powerful it was,” she said.
They attended the program once a week for almost five months.
She said the experience changed their relationship and, thanks to the program, they learned how to communicate effectively and reestablish trust.
“Sometimes as parents, we get caught up in our own emotions,” Stevens said. “Good Shepherd’s mediation program allows their [young people’s] voices to be heard.”
She said the program was designed to help parents stop and listen to their child’s needs and help parents to try to understand what their children are going through.
“Life is a learning experience,” Stevens said. “Young people are going to make mistakes, but we have to allow them to make those mistakes and be there to help them through those mistakes.”
She added that children just wanted to be understood.
“As parents, we need to share our mistakes, so we don’t come off as preaching,” Stevens said. “Youth often feel threatened by their needs or whatever is going on in their lives. We need to focus on how to help our child and understand what’s going on. Conflicts are always going to be there. It’s how we manage them that matters.”
In the beginning, Stevens, who volunteered at the center, said she was nervous about coming to Good Shepherd because she didn’t know what her son was going to say.
She added that Good Shepherd was a place where parents and children can come to resolve conflicts so they can move forward.
“Sometimes, our children get stuck and in order to move forward we need to ask for help – and we can’t be afraid to ask for that help,” Stevens said.
But parent-youth counseling is only one of the mediation services available to the public. The Good Shepherd Mediation Program offers a variety of services, including community mediation, divorce mediation, custody mediation, parent-youth mediation, elder disputes, victim-offender conferencing, conflict resolution workshops for youth and many more.
“Mediation is a simple and cost-effective way of resolving disagreements,” said Cheryl Cutrona, executive director of the Good Shepherd Mediation Program. “Educating the public about the benefits of mediating can be challenging.”
Cutrona said one reason is that most of the disputes are referred to the Good Shepherd Program by court personnel, police, attorneys, school administrators, government agencies and other community leaders.
“Only about one-third of the cases referred to mediation actually make it to the table,” Cutrona said.
She added that settling custody disputes or other family matters through the court system can be expensive. In mediation, participants are informed of the cost before proceedings, and everything discussed during mediation remains confidential, unlike in court.
Foreman added that mediation is often less stressful and saves time. Meetings usually take around 60 to 90 minutes, and the number of meetings depends upon the nature of the conflict.
“I think one of the greatest benefits of mediation is that you actually have a voice in how the conflict is resolved,” Foreman said. “You are not going to an arbitrator or judge, who is going to decide exactly what you are going to have. The beauty of mediation is that both parties create an agreement that you actually play apart in, not only by crafting the terms of the conflict but even in the language and word choice.”
GSMP, a nonprofit organization, used to provide community mediation at no charge. Unfortunately, because of decreases in funding and the growing costs of services available to meet the needs of the community, clients are now charged a fee based on a per-session sliding scale, but the program never turns anyone away for the inability to pay.
“We do not turn any party away for their inability to pay,” Foreman said. “We do not want resources to be a reason for anyone not to engage in this type of conflict resolution.”
For more information about Good Shepherd Mediation Program call 215-843-5413 or go to www.phillymediators.org.