Dispute Settlement Center works to help resolve differences

By Todd Cohen

CARRBORO, N.C. — The Dispute Settlement Center in Carrboro was providing mediation services for 400 to 500 people a year who were referred by criminal district court when state lawmakers in 2011 eliminated $1.2 million in funding for roughly 20 mediation centers throughout the state.

Lawmakers left it to people in criminal court who opt to resolve their disputes through mediation to pay for those services themselves, a move that mainly affected people with limited resources and created a bottleneck in the courts, says Frances Henderson, executive director of the Center.

“The burden on district court already was immense,” she says.

But after a year with no local criminal court mediation, the Orange County Board of Commissioners agreed to revive the program, providing the Center with $60,000 in funding, effective July 1, 2012, and renewed the funding this year.

Founded in 1978 by citizens concerned about court crowding, and about how disputes were resolved in court, the Center was the state’s first community mediation program.

It operates with a staff of six people and an annual budget of $425,000, and counts on fees for 47 percent of its funds, government for 29 percent, and private support for 24 percent.

The Center serves about 3,000 people a year, providing roughly 800 mediations.

In addition to handling mediations for people referred by criminal court, the Center  handles disputes referred by the state Office of Administrative Hearings over the denial of requested Medicaid services, or referred by the state Department of Public Instruction when parents have a problem with the individual education plan prepared by schools for children in special education programs.

The Center also handles mediations and conflicts between spouses and domestic partners; parents and children; neighbors; and neighborhoods and local government on issues such as planning and the environment.

And it provides training on conflict resolution and mediation for employers and organizations, as well as for individuals, including those looking for professional development opportunities.

Henderson, a lawyer who has served as executive director for 21 years after working in the Winston-Salem office of Womble Carlyle as a product-liability defense litigator, says that while more people today than in the past understand what mediation is, they still can be reluctant to use it to settle disputes.

“It can be tough to get people to the mediation table,” she says. “We’ve talked to countless people who want mediation but we can’t get the other party to the table.”

Compounding that reluctance is “pent-up demand,” she says.

“People during the downturn worked so hard, maybe worked a job-and-a-half, and a lot of conflict was created,” she says. “So now as the economy is getting a little better, people are saying, ‘Let’s deal with the conflict we’ve got.”

The graying of the population also is creating a lot of potential for conflict within families about aging parents, particularly those living with their children, with issues ranging from the need to write wills and estate plans to whether the parents should be living in retirement homes.

“People know those issues are coming, but families don’t tend to have the conversations they need to have in planning,” Henderson says. “It’s also emotionally charged. And it’s better to have the conversations sooner to preserve the relationships.”

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