The North Dakota Supreme Court announced a new family mediation program this week, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Expedited Parenting Time Mediation Program will offer up to one hour of telephone mediation for existing civil cases involving a dispute about parenting rights and responsibilities, relocation of a child or grandparent visitation, according to documents provided by state court administration.

The order is an attempt to address two concerns heard frequently by the court during its state of emergency: the expense of modifying existing orders, and the delay it takes for a formal motion to be granted.

"Our No. 1 goal is to quickly address those issues when they come up, because uncertainty breeds fear and anger," said State Court Administrator Sally Holewa. "And once you get fear and anger into the mix, people can't think clearly. So situations quickly deteriorate, and that's not good for the children and that's not good for the parents."

The program is a voluntary first step in the judicial process, Holwea said. According to a statement by the Supreme Court, the program will require mediation to occur within one to seven days of the online application and will require a determination within three days. In the absence of an agreement between the parties with mediation, the existing court order will stand.

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The court's normal Family Mediation Program requires a formal court order from a judge, which then gives parties 120 days to complete up to six hours of mediation. Holwea said the normal mediation program receives about 1,000 referrals per year.

Holewa said that it's difficult to predict how much interest the program would receive, but that, after the online application went live Wednesday morning, one application had been received for the program by 12:30 p.m. that day.

While the expedited program is only available to parties with existing parenting schedule orders, at the district court level, Presiding Judge Donald Hager said new cases will be heard but will require those parties to first go through the regular mediation process as well. With schools closing and shelter-in-place orders being issued, Hager said he expects the number of new cases involving parenting disputes will swell in the coming weeks or months.

"The longer this drags on, the more we're going to see that, because some people are asking to have their summer visitation start earlier because the school is closed down or something like that or they're afraid that the person is going to take them from here out to Williston or even out of state for that matter, so I think it's going to actually increase, not decrease."

Hager said he especially foresees conflicts between parties with one parent in North Dakota, which does not have a shelter-in-place order, and one parent in a state that does.

"If they truly follow the letter of that stay-in-place order, kids are going to stay where they're at, with their primary custodian," he said. "And that's kind of my position with this, is why would you want to move that child temporarily for a weekend someplace where you can have exposure? Just ride this out for a couple months, we'll see where it goes, and then we'll try to adjust visitation and get it earned back or something. I mean, you can't ever earn back that time, but you can make some concessions down the road."

Prior to the pandemic, Holewa said the idea of some sort of earlier intervention had been discussed in parenting cases, but no specifics were decided on until the state of emergency. She said it's still unclear whether the program will continue after courts across the state return to business as usual.

"I tell you what, right now it's temporary, but we're going to be watching it closely, for two reasons," she said. "No. 1, we want to see what kind of need there might be, we want to see whether it's successful. And then that will tell us whether it's something we want to continue going forward."