Intervention for Facilitative Family Mediation in Finland

The Finnish matrimonial law from 1987 states that family conflicts should be solved by negotiation and mediation and that for those who do end up in divorce, the mediators should give help to reach an agreement regarding all the arrangements needed to support families in dispute. The agreements about custody, living and visiting rights and maintenance can be registered by child welfare officers. However, changes in municipal mediation practices have been slow and are still very much in progress and the field of Finnish family mediation is fragmented. Municipalities have no uniform guidelines in how to arrange the mediation services, and often the family mediation is practically non-existent – almost a dead letter. In addition, professionals working with divorced families understand mediation in different ways. For some professionals, it may mean helping the spouses to work out their matrimonial relationship and its breakdown; for others it may refer to practical help in fixing the custody, living and visiting rights of the children. In divorce, however, social, psychological, economical and juridical aspects intertwine in a complex and awkward way. It is a challenge for mediation to figure out the clients' situation in a way that enables flexible everyday routines and parents' real and amicable participation in their children's lives after divorce. The family mediation project with a facilitative idea for mediation, the Fasper project, was designed and initiated in 2009 by the NGO Finnish Forum for Mediation2 and the University of Helsinki as an intervention for recapturing facilitative family mediation. The exploratory phase produced interviews with about 100 professionals in the local services as well as some divorcing parents. This data gave a picture of family mediation services as confusing: people sought help in their crises within a multi-entrance and multi-professional and confusing system. The project invited a network of service providers to join in the planning of and experimentation with new types of mediation services, models and practices, with the aim of creating a pilot course for training facilitative family mediators. This learning network consisted of six municipalities including several branches of social services, as well as legal aid, districts courts, and family counselling units of the Lutheran (Finnish national) church, which are all responsible for service production in the capital area of Finland for about 700,000 inhabitants (Haavisto, Bergman-Pyykkönen and Mattila-Aalto 2011).

The introduction phase of the project questioned the common belief that the mediation system would be provide enough coverage and be coordinated though overloaded. It also made visible the conflict-escalating practices in the contradictory service system. Through a Simmelian tie analysis (Nedelman 2001) of the interview data and dialogic processes drawn from previous research literature materials, it was found that the conflicts between divorced parents follow a universal process of conflict escalation. Parents tend in their sensitive and heated divorce situations to look for help alone, not together. Unfortunately, the advice given to one party alone – and often given from a judicial perspective only – may lead to measures that worsen the disagreements or evoke a new conflict. When the conflict escalates, the parties lose trust in each other as parents and often expect the authorities to solve their problems. Similarly, the authorities despair when they find parents unable to solve the problems according to the best interests of the child (Mattila-Aalto et al. 2012).

The findings suggested developing the service system and designing the service practices in divorce situations in a way that recognizes parents' needs to get support in their own rearrangements and negotiations in all the areas to be contracted when divorcing. In addition, a need for post-divorce conflict management through mediation was highlighted (Mattila-Aalto et al. 2012; see also Cohen 2012). All this would require a thorough change in prevailing practices and a methodology for developmental research allowing the practitioners with different professional backgrounds to engage with this change process of recapturing family mediation, their own field of expertise.

2 The four-year project funding was admitted to the Finnish Forum for Mediation by the Finnish Slot Machine Association.

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