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  • April 11, 2018

    Placing Children First: Mediating Child Custody and Placement Disputes

    There are many hurdles and pitfalls when it is your job to find common ground with parents involved in custody disputes. Nancy Mills discusses her techniques to help parents overcome their issues and put their children first.

    Nancy A. Mills

    As a nontraditional student, I could have followed many different paths after graduation from Marquette Law School. After I recognized that young children do not have a voice in deciding who takes care of them or where they live, I chose the path of children’s rights and helping divorcing parents or never-together parents choose a sane and non-adversarial solution to their children’s custody and placement issues. I have found this work to be extremely satisfying.


    Many parents come to mediation with pre-conceived ideas of placement and custody, based on the experiences of their friends and relatives.

    The first hurdle for the parents is understanding that each situation is completely different, bound in fact by work schedules, transportation possibilities, ages and activities of the children, and school availability and schedules – to name only a few of the multitude of considerations. In the hundreds of parenting agreements I have documented, I can say with certainty that no two have been alike.

    Building Toward an Agreement

    When I meet parents for their first mediation session, I begin by reviewing the process guidelines, emphasizing respect for each other as parents. This involves discussing the importance of speaking and thinking of their child as just that, their child, not MY son or MY daughter. It is amazing how this simple adjustment tilts the discussion in a positive way. If the language becomes adversarial, I allude to the procedural guidelines and the importance of cordiality.

    Nancy Mills, Marquette 2005, is a sole practitioner in the Fox River Valley, concentrating on mediation for the custody and placement of children, primarily in Washington County and Milwaukee County. She also represents pro bono clients in cases through Legal Action of Wisconsin.

    I generally allow parents to explain their situations and viewpoints without interruption by either the other party or by me. I help them find common areas of agreement, even if only in minor areas, as I find that parents respond positively to encouragement and are quite pleased to find that they do have some areas of agreement. When people are pleased with even minor accomplishments, they are more able to progress to large issues.

    I move between the areas of daily placement and holiday placement, and wherever I find some agreement, I build on it. Rather than reaching a stone wall past which they cannot move and which signals impasse, I work around issues, and try to get agreements on issues wherever I can find them. This takes not only time but patience.

    In his book, Game Theory and the Transformation of Family Law,1 Ken Waldron notes that he starts by looking for similarities in long-term goals, and helps the parties “increase the value of their agreement based on these goals.”

    I also try to obtain a partial agreement if a complete one cannot be found.

    For example, sometimes parents can do a comprehensive holiday schedule, but nothing more. I believe it is better to obtain some kind of partial agreement rather than none at all. Sometimes parents will even come back and try to finish all areas of the agreement.

    Small Stepping Stones, Moving Forward

    I use small stepping stones in working through the process, allowing the parents to direct the flow of the conversation. What may seem a minor issue to some looms very large in someone else’s agenda. Listening carefully is very important, as is considering the body language of the parties. I try to keep the sessions cordial and positive, and sometimes use silence as an ice breaker and a way to keep the sessions moving forward.

    I believe assisting parents with decisions about the custody and placement of their children is important work.

    Despite the hurdles and pitfalls in family law, I find much satisfaction in helping parents find resolution, placing the welfare of their children first.


    1 Kenneth Waldron, PhD., and Allan Koritzinski, J.D., Game Theory and the Transformation of Family Law, Unhooked Books, 2015.

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