Even when all of the other issues in a divorce have been resolved, custody and visitation rights still can bitterly divide families and turn children into pawns.

Often, a judge is left to decide the issues, and no one walks away entirely happy.

But Carroll judges now have more flexibility to order soon-to-be-divorced spouses into sessions where they check their lawyers at the door and try to come up with their own solutions. Resolving disputes may become easier because of a judicial rule enacted last year and the opening of the county's first office devoted solely to mediating conflict.

The concept of mediation is not new, but it has not been widely used in Carroll, said Senior Assistant Public Defender Martha Ann Sitterding. Sitterding and former Republican state Sen. Sharon W. Hornberger hope to change that with their new business, Mediation Services of Carroll County Inc., on North Court Street.

"A mediator does not act as an arbitrator, whose decisions are binding," said Sitterding, who will still work in the public defender's office and provide mediation services at night and on weekends.

"A mediator makes no decisions for anyone else," she said. "We just help people keep ontarget and tell them all their options so they can come to their owndecisions."

Until last summer, Sitterding dealt with divorce cases and custody battles on a routine basis in her private law practice.She was forced to give up that practice last July when a new state law prohibited public defenders from doing private civil work.

"I had a moral commitment to that office, so I decided to give up my private practice," she said. "It just seemed there was a need for mediation in Carroll County."

After losing her bid for the state Senate last November, Hornberger said she took some time off to consider her options.

"I was at a crossroads in my

life," she said. "Mart and I have been friends for a couple of years, and we always said we wanted to start a business together."

From the beginning, they thought about opening a mediation service but did not investigate trainingprograms until several months ago, she said.

In April, Hornbergerand Sitterding completed a 50-hour training program in Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, sponsored by the National Academy of Mediators.

In a typical court-ordered mediation situation, a judge will determine that the couple has been able to resolve other problems, such as alimony and the liquidation of property.

"Many times, people have been able to resolve other issues, and this has been a stumbling block," Hornberger said.

The court can order a couple to two two-hour mediation sessions, which have been available on a limited basis through the county Department of Social Services. The results are kept confidential and cannot be used in court.

If a solution is reached, the mediator can draw up an agreement -- signed by both parties -- to add to the formal divorce decree.

Sitterding said mediation can beless costly -- emotionally and financially -- than a court battle. An average mediation session costs $75, she said.

Carroll judges seem to like the idea, saying people usually stick to decisions they make on their own.

"I think custody decisions are the most importantdecisions a judge can make," said Arnold.

Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. said mediation can cut down on the bitterness of custody battles, save couples money, and reduce court time.

Couples do not have to be ordered to mediation. A mediator can be used to work out alldivorce issues and a lawyer hired only at the end can draw up the paperwork, Sitterding said. Mediation services also can be used to dissolve business partnerships or settle other contractual disputes.

*Sharon W. Hornberger is a columnist for The Carroll County Sun.

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