Clinton Pettus is deliberately sketchy on the details. He wants to protect the participants' identities. Still, it got ugly when one neighbor accused another neighbor of building something that encroached on the neighbor's property. Words were said. Threats were made.
Since August, Pettus, a Pikesville resident and retired college president of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, has co-facilitated three cases for the Conflict Resolution Center (CRC) of Baltimore County.
"It's been fascinating," said Pettus, who went through CRC's training to become a volunteer mediator. His other cases involved a home sale gone sour and a parenting dispute between a grandmother and the granddaughter who lived with her. All three of his cases were resolved through mediation, the property line and house sale in just one session each.
CRC is one of 17 community-based mediation centers around the state.
Established in 2009 as a private nonprofit, CRC provides free mediation services to individuals, communities and organizations. A year later, in 2010, CRC added community conferencing to its services.
Misty Fae, CRC's executive director, credits the state of Maryland and the Maryland Judiciary for this initiative.
"We were formed because there was no publicly available alternative to the court process. Maryland is known for advancing community-supported services," said Fae, a social worker and psychologist with experience in a similar center in Baltimore City.
The Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, part of the Maryland Judiciary, oversees the centers. They must provide mediation in the neighborhoods where the case happened, have a staff that reflects the community and meet performance-based goals for funding.
Says Lou Gieszl, deputy executive director of the resolution office, "Centers around the state use four different mediation models. Most, including CRC, use the inclusive model. The idea is that people can include whatever they want in their mediation that pertains to their conflict."
CRC has two offices in Baltimore County, Hunt Valley and Essex. With an annual budget of under $500,000, CRC operates with a full-time staff of six, including Fae, and 45 volunteer mediators.
"They are teachers, retirees, social workers, bankers, insurance agent. All ages, all demographics, men and women," she said of the volunteers who, like Pettus, get 60 hours of training for their role.
Parent vs. parent, neighbor vs. neighbor
Any Baltimore County resident can request CRC's services. In addition, the center gets referrals from the state juvenile services department, state attorney general's office, county police department and county public schools.
For mediation, two volunteer mediators and a staff-observer conduct a preliminary interview. They then arrange a two-hour-long mediation session in a neutral setting where the participants live — places like a community center, recreation center, library meeting room, church or synagogue.
"That's their comfort level," Fae said.
Most of the state's mediation centers see the same kinds of cases, according to the resolution office's Gieszl. The two most common are parent vs. parent and neighbor vs. neighbor. The former are often about separated parents' custody disputes; the latter, are usually regarding noise, onstreet parking, property lines and unruly dogs, Gieszl said. The remaining cases are mostly seniors and adult care, parent vs. teenager and other animal-related issues.
"The vast majority of referrals from the court system [to the centers] are contested custody disputes if there's no violence," Gieszl said. "As for neighborhood rage, these are next-door neighbors who can't get along with each other over something that happened years ago. We see them in court. But the court can't address the underlying issue."
While CRC doesn't limit the number of sessions, Fae said that it's not unusual for cases to be resolved in a single session. "The participants are in charge of their own process," she said. "We provide a structure for their conversation. It's not just venting."
In Baltimore County, Michelle Fuller, assistant state's attorney and chief of the juvenile division of the county state's attorney's office, refers cases to CRC, with the proviso that all parties agree.
"More people agree to mediation than don't," Fuller said, although the alternative is a court date.
Like Fae, Fuller said the center helps people arrive at a solution on their own.
"It can be a great benefit to the person who is charged, and avoids a delinquency finding," Fuller said. "But also to the victim who helps to craft the resolution. They get to express how the crime made them feel."
As for its community conference, Fae describesd it as "another form of conflict resolution" but with a different protocol. CRC is one of handful of centers in the state that does community conferencing, partly for lack of funding. Fae estimated CRC's split is 60/40 conferencing and mediation.
In conferencing, the two major issues CRC handles are mutual assault, in which the participants are filing cross-charges, and bullying. All participants in the situation attend the session, anywhere from five to 25 people.
One example involved 11 middle- and high-school girls who were facing second-degree assault charges as the result of a longstanding feud among them. The girls, their parents, school administrators and a Baltimore County police officer made for quite a crowd when they met in the library of a school near theirs.
Amid a background of mean-girl gossip, a bump in a hallway led to a punch in the mouth that led to a confrontation after school. The frank discussion cleared the air. Mutual misunderstandings were resolved. Tears shed, apologies given and received.
"The structure of conferencing is that it gets to the heart of what's going on," Fae said. "They got to participate in the process. It affects their lives."