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Granting Opportunities: Legal Aid Mediation Assistance

Along with investing in core programs through partner agencies, United Way of Story County (UWSC) offers the opportunity for human service agencies in Story County to apply for grant funding. Since the beginning of 2014, this column has been highlighting some recent grant recipients as a way to share the good work of local agencies and, at the same time, fill you in on other opportunities UWSC provides beyond the traditional campaign and funding model.

In addition to the regular grant process, proceeds from UWSC’s Golf Fore Kids event, held each year in August, support programs and initiatives that impact the lives of Story County children above and beyond current funding opportunities. The awarded grants may address expansion of programs and initiatives already funded by UWSC or those not currently receiving funds from UWSC.

As a way for families to receive support and education during child custody disputes, Legal Aid Society of Story County received a 2013 Golf Fore Kids grant of $780 for Mandatory Mediation assistance and Children in the Middle classes. Specifically, the grant funds are being used to cover nearly 30 mediations and 20 Children in the Middle classes.

Legal Aid Society of Story County, located in Nevada, assists nearly 600 indigent clients in civil legal matters each year, and the cases affect more than 800 children annually.

Every parent involved in a child custody proceeding in Story County District Court is required to participate in court-ordered mediation in order to attempt to divert cases from going to trial. This mediation requirement has frequently resulted in better outcomes for clients of Legal Aid, because the case may be resolved more quickly and in a manner that is more closely tailored to the circumstances of the particular family. Quick resolution reduces stress on the parties and their children involved and allows the clients to move beyond their dispute without a destructive court battle. Family law mediators in the area have agreed, as a condition of being placed on the court’s list of approved mediation providers, to accept cases for indigent clients and to charge a flat fee of $30-50 for every mediation case to clients who are unable to afford the cost of mediation (which may be $150-200 per hour). However, even the flat fee is a barrier to access for many clients. Without the ongoing availability of grant funds to cover the mediation cost, Legal Aid finds that clients are forced to delay mediation or even risk noncompliance with the court’s requirement.

In addition, every parent involved in a child custody proceeding in the courts of Iowa is required by the Iowa Legislature to participate in Children in the Middle, a court-ordered, four-hour class designed to assist parents in keeping their children out of their relationship and custody conflicts. The cost of this class is $40 per participant and helps parents learn ways to co-parent in a civil and productive manner. Without the ongoing availability of grant funds to cover this cost for Legal Aid clients, many clients may fail to participate, putting their children at greater risk and exposing themselves to potential contempt penalties from the court. Also, some judges refuse to finalize child custody cases until this requirement has been met, and failure to complete the class may delay conclusion of custody matters indefinitely.

Legal Aid’s goal is that participants in both programs are educated and supported while going through a challenging and stressful life event, and grant funding from UWSC is indeed helping advance that goal.

Sara Wilson is marketing director for United Way of Story County, a strategic leader in building county-wide partnerships to identify needs and to develop, support and evaluate effective human services, especially in the areas of education, income and health, for our diverse community.

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