The clock is ticking. In the child welfare system, time is not a family friend. As a student attorney representing impoverished parents facing intractable barriers that included homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction and intimate partner violence, I so often just wanted to buy them time. Counseling these parents in crowded courthouse hallways minutes before their case numbers were called before judges with overburdened dockets, I wanted to buy them time to tell their story, find safe, affordable housing, secure a living-wage job, and complete the recovery treatment program. Skimming case files smack-dab in the throes of a system intent upon reconstructing the past, I just wanted to buy these parents time now, so that their children might have a future. For parents hauled into the child welfare system, time is one of the many things working against them. I wanted them to have enough time to get their kids back and feel like they were being heard. I wanted mediation to happen at a different time to change time in child welfare.
This article critiques the federally-mandated timeline and reactive use of mediation in child welfare cases, and then analyzes the therapeutic benefits and challenges of employing mediation as a proactive, alternative response to filing a child neglect petition. It proposes a mediation model that has the potential to change the legal culture of child protection, transform the relationship between parents and the state, create judicial efficiency and deliver true permanency for children by buying their parents time.