As a supplement to the district court system in Harvey and McPherson counties, the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution has proven its worth. In particular, KIPCOR's Dispute Resolution Triage program has been of great benefit to the local courts since its launch in 2015.
While the North Newton-based KIPCOR's community mediation center assists with disputes ranging from barking dogs to workplace disagreements, the triage program is a little different — intervening in cases of divorce and/or parental separation. Each year in the ninth judicial district of Kansas, it was reported the triage program assists with approximately 120 to 130 such cases split fairly evenly between Harvey and McPherson counties.
Given the success rate of the program — with only 5% of cases returned to the courts for services — KIPCOR administration is all for continuing it, but to do so would require some financial assistance. Administration came before the Harvey County Commission recently to request just that.
Based on a program implemented in Connecticut, the Dispute Resolution Triage program approaches divorce/separation in a few ways, with a vetted assessment of each set of parents done to determine which options to pursue. A panel of 18 dispute resolution specialists is available to provide services through the program and additional parental education classes are offered. Classes cover divorce impact education, health opportunities for parenting effectively, and more.
"It's a much more collaborative, less adversarial approach to resolving these disputes, which can get the toxicity out of the conflict — and that impacts kids. Parental conflict during divorce and separations has a huge impact on kids' development, so it's not just the parents, it's the children who are benefiting from what we do," said Community Mediation Center Director Dan Wassink.
On top of that, the program utilizes a sliding fee scale to help parents afford the services. About 58 percent of those in the program earn a gross annual income of $34,999 or less.
Not only does the triage program facilitate more peaceful resolutions between separating parents, it gives them the tools to do that on their own — with nearly one-fourth of parents in the program able to come to their own agreements. Along with support from local judges and attorneys, as well as statewide and national recognition, the positives of the program were made clear.
What Wassink and KIPCOR Director Sheryl Wilson also told the county commissioners was that, with current trends, the program is unsustainable. Currently, the program operates at a significant deficit of about $25,000 annually, and fees from program courses cannot cover it.
KIPCOR has sought and applied for grant funding to help with the program — receiving approximately $3,500 to date in 2019 — but assistance from the counties served by the ninth judicial district court would go a long way to help keep it going, with KIPCOR requesting $10,000 from each.
"I would hate for us to have to scale it back or to eliminate it, just simply because we're maybe needing to look at different ways to fund it," Wilson said. "I think this is certainly a short-term solution, but I think you would probably give us the greatest impact financially on moving this forward."
"We would ask you to consider the impact on your courts if this program were to cease; they'd have a lot more work to do that has been offloaded, but I would also ask you to consider the importance of the program to parents and children in Harvey County. I think that's critical," Wassink said. "It's not just about dollars and cents from our perspective. This is a program that impacts the entire community — the constituents in Harvey County, the parents, the children. We have benefits that really accrue to so many people in this community and we want to continue the program for that reason and we are asking for your support."
Wassink and Wilson also pointed out several community benefits, including:
Time freed up for the courts,
eliminating the need for child custody investigations, a labor-intensive task,
eliminating some of the toxicity tied to divorce/separations,
providing a professional and sensitive response to domestic violence and mental health issues, which can prevent issues and reduce the burden on police and other groups
Questions were raised by commissioners on potentially pushing this funding request to the state level – as it is tied closely to the court system — and KIPCOR noted they are working to get the State Legislature involved, but the $10,000 from each commission would help in the short term.
Harvey County Commissioners took no action, but did agree to address the funding requesting during budget hearings that wrapped up Wednesday with the district court, though advantages of continuing the program were not in question.
"There's clearly effects on the community," said Harvey County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber. "There's also clear benefits to the district court."
KIPCOR is also scheduled to present its funding request to the McPherson County Commission in early June.