A look at how a local mediation program sustains itself and the three counties it covers
By Cammie Behnke, David Flynt, Diego Pineda, Matt Holzapfel, Rachel Wingrat, and Reid Kugler
May 20, 2019
Diane Purgason recalls sitting in between a young woman who had a one-month-old baby and a Walmart Superstore loss prevention representative. The woman said she stole baby food from the Walmart to feed her baby because she could not afford it.
As a mediator, or a conflict-resolution facilitator, Purgason had to come to an agreement with both parties to settle the robbery case. On one hand she had a woman with a newborn in need and on the other she had a corporation representative.
After the mediation began and the representative fully understood the situation, the woman received more baby food from Walmart.
Cases like these are why Purgason enjoys being a mediator.
“It's just awesome,” Purgason said. “Especially these people who... didn't do that except to get food, it's all good for everybody and both sides. It's like both sides win something.”
Purgason works with multiple cases such as these daily as the mediator manager at ReDirections of Rockingham and Alamance counties. This non-profit center aims to better the quality of life for the communities it serves by helping people come to agreements with their difference through mediation and other programs.
Despite mediating hundreds of cases a year, this center is only one of 16 mediation centers in the state of North Carolina. Out of the 100 counties in the state, only 60 are covered by these centers.
Though the success rate and demand for mediation programs is high in the state, it has not been easy for a center like ReDirections to sustain itself economically.
Helping the community
Purgason is one of three full-time employees in the Rockingham office for ReDirections. The center covers Rockingham, Alamance, and Caswell counties. Other counties that are not as populated in the state may not have mediation as an option. Lila Markley works in the Alamance office as the mediation program manager and is assisted by eight volunteer mediators.
When two parties have a dispute in Alamance County, there are two possible courses of action. The first option is a trial, in which both parties argue their case in front of a judge. This can be a more expensive and drawn out process for all parties involved due to court costs, legal fees and other associated expenses. Alternatively, the judge can recommend mediation to settle the dispute without a trial.
According to Purgason, mediation costs 60 dollars, which can be paid by any party. In a trial court, the losing party is required to pay at least 190 dollars, depending on the situation.
“The magistrate will generally decide whether or not a case is something that can be mediated or is eligible for mediation,” Markley said. “And so when that happens then those cases are assigned for mediation.”
Markley said the mediator is a neutral third party, often a volunteer, who is not affiliated with the court or any advocacy organization. These mediators undergo 40 hours of training to get certified to handle cases on their own.
One of the major differences between mediation and trial court is the mediators themselves. Bradley Allen, Senior Chief District Judge in Alamance County, said that they have a different goal than judges do. While a judge may place a heavy emphasis on the evidence and hear short pleas from both sides, a mediator works to understand the complete story.
“A mediator is not forcing their decisions or what they think should happen,” Allen said.
Allen also said that this is one of the reasons mediation can be so successful.
“It works out better in the long run the majority of the time because they're the ones that have to live with whatever takes place,” he explained. “It’s better for them to have some input.”
Despite this, mediation does not work for every case. Domestic violence, felonies, and, in some circumstances, private warrants will not go through mediation.
“You got a 50-50 chance when you go in front of the judge,” Bonnie Dickens, ReDirections finance officer, said. “That's one of the real big things that I like about mediation.”
ReDirections helps facilitate mediation in Alamance, Rockingham and Caswell counties.
Though similar in how they process mediations, both Rockingham and Alamance counties differ in how they carry their mediations. For Rockingham, it runs on a case-by-case basis on any day of the week that works for both parties.
For Alamance, all mediations occur on Fridays. When mediations occur depends on what the district attorney in a specific county decides is the best way to carry them.
“The whole point is for them to tell their story,” Markley said. “Each side says what they want to say.”
As the neutral third party negotiator in mediations, Markley said when she began mediating it was hard hear both sides of a dispute and find a way to settle an agreement.
Lila Markley's office is located in the downtown Graham Cooperative.
“I would talk with one person and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you know this terrible thing that happened to you,’ and then you talk to the other person and you hear the other side and then you'd start getting some balance,” Markley said.
Mediation is typically used for relatively minor misdemeanor crimes such as trespassing, theft of property and simple assault. Both the plaintiff and the defendant may opt for mediation to avoid a trial and a permanent mark on their record.
Benefitting from the program
In the United States, there are up to 175,000 people in jail for misdemeanors at any given time. Markley said that mediation centers such as ReDirections have the responsibility to resolve conflict and help people avoid serving jail time. This occurs if a district judge offers the option for cases to be mediated instead of taking them to court.
Diane Purgason is one of three full-time employees in the Rockingham offices of ReDirections.
Purgason remembers mediating a case between a young boy and his grandmother. She said the boy “put a hole” in his grandmother’s wall, and because of some mental disabilities he had a difficult time communicating his reasoning.
Initially, she was going to press charges against her grandson, but through mediation the three were able to work out ways that the boy could help his grandmother fix and pay for the damage to her wall.
“They left there feeling good to each other,” Purgason said.“I think people are just very grateful to be able to talk to each other. Communication is the main thing they have to realize.”
ReDirections began as a way to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders who would otherwise face jail or prison time in 1995. Its funding has come from program fees, fundraisers and grants. According to Dickens, the center handles roughly 400 cases a year in Rockingham county during a typical court calendar. She considers mediation a “win-win situation for both parties.”
It really does disrupt a person's life whenever you get caught up in the system.”
— Lila Markley, ReDirections Mediations Program Manager
For the staff members in ReDirections like Dickens and Markley, an aspect that they enjoy about their job is being able to come to an agreement that helps both parties instead than having one win and another lose if they were to go to court.
“I really hate to see someone have a criminal charge against them and going forward in life because that's really difficult,” Markley said. “It really does disrupt a person's life whenever you get caught up in the system.”
On Wednesdays, Lila Markley prepares the paperwork for Friday's mediations in Alamance County.
Beth Burt, mediator and former director of ReDirections, said that mediators assist the parties craft their own resolution as to what would help them move beyond these incidences that brought them to court.
After sitting down with a mediator, the parties have a 90-day period to employ their solution. If it’s unsuccessful, the case will go back to court. The success of mediation differs based on the type of case, but according to Burt, ReDirections’ mediations have a 90% success rate.
But for Burt, success can be more than just a resolution.
“Sometimes success can happen in the mediation room where there was a handshake, there could be tears, there could be hugs, there could be apologies,” Burt said. “Something as simple as that is success.”
But mediation is not always successful for every party. Because a mediation resolution is not a legally binding court agreement, Allen said that some people may not follow through.
If either party does not follow on the set agreement, the matter goes back to the court. “Then you’re back at ground zero,” he said.
Despite this, Allen said that he and the other district court judges see mediation as a very successful alternative.
Learning to sustain the center
ReDirections' main source of income comes primarily from the mediation fees and from medicaid appeals, which the center also offers. Medicaid appeals occur when a person benefiting from Medicaid has their services decreased or revoked. They then have the option to appeal this decision through a phone mediation conducted by ReDirections mediators.
“We try to be self-sufficient as far as the money that we bring in for mediation and for Medicaid mediations,” Markley said.
The center just had their annual fundraiser called “An evening with Elvis and friends.” Markley said the event helped raise about $8,000 for the center. Alexey Ferrell, executive director of ReDirections, said she was satisfied from the result of the fundraiser.
As the program's director, Alexey Ferrell deals with a lot of administrative work in the Rockingham Office.
“It was great,” Ferrell said. “There was definitely a community effort in making it because one can only do so much.”
When ReDirections first started in 1995, Dickens said she recalls people were skeptical about mediation and they had a tough time getting cases.
"There was skepticism because it's kind of a new way of doing things. But I think all in all, throughout the entire county and state, everyone really sees the benefits of mediation," Allen said.
Through the help of lawyers and commissioners, ReDirections began to grow. But its growth has brought challenges.
“We have had some years that we've really struggled to stay open,” Dickens said. “I worked one year for four months without a salary at all to keep mediation going because I saw how important it was.”
Ferrell and Dickens both have had several months over the years with no salary. Ferrell said that though they kept the program alive, it was hard to know what bills she would be able to pay at home when she had no idea when her next paycheck would come.
In 2014, the center lost its contract for a program that served juvenile offenders. From then, the revenue from the state decreased, according to an agency degree audit.
“We have other things that we need funding for,” Dickens said. "The hardest thing we have had is to get funding to keep the program going.”
The funding for ReDirections has not been stable for the past five years, despite a recent successful fundraiser. According to its tax forms, the center’s revenue dropped drastically between 2014 and 2015, but grew between 2015 and 2016.
Because ReDirections depends largely on mediation and Medicaid appeal fees, its revenue is dictated by the demand from the community.
“Our program wouldn't run on free,” said Burt.
Spreading the word
Despite the high success rate of mediation and Medicaid appeals, Burt said that it can be difficult to inform others about mediation. In Rockingham County, Purgason said that the main way others know about mediation is through word of mouth.
“Most folks may have heard the term but maybe are not aware of how to do it and where they can get it done,” Burt said.
Burt mentioned that sometimes the first time people learn about it is when they get a call informing them that their case is going through mediation. She also said that letters that are sent to parties to inform them of their court date do not currently include information about mediation.
“It would be nice if the court system itself could publicly state that it’s a benefit for people to mediate,” Markley said.
Allen agrees that communication surrounding mediation could be improved, but how people get informed about mediation is not under his control. He said that the first time a person hears about mediation is often on their court date.
“It’s the first time…a defendant has any contact with the court system,” Allen said.
(left to right) Purgason, Dickens, and Ferrell are the three full-time employees at the ReDirections Office in Rockingham.
While ReDirections hopes to get more publicity to the communities they serve, what keeps the staff working to sustain the center and its programs is their interest in helping people.
According to Burt, it is the people who hold the program together.
“I think what works for these community mediation programs is a committed cadre of volunteer mediators,” Burt said.
For Markley, it is a way to give back to the community. Though she has a paid position, she relies heavily on the eight volunteer mediators that help out every Friday in Alamance county.
“We would not be able to operate if it weren't for them [the staff],” Markley said.
Bonnie Dickens has held multiple positions in ReDirections since she began working there in 1995.
Though Dickens has been a part of the program since its birth, she said she is still working hard to have it serve its purpose.
“Everybody asks me, ‘Why haven’t you retired yet?’” Dickens said. “I love this program. I see what it is doing. I love what it is doing.
ReDirections is currently in the works of starting a mediation program in Person county to provide their services to that community.