Virginia Colin, Ph.D.: Helping Families Stay Out of Court

How do you describe the role of the mediator? 
A mediator’s primary responsibility is to facilitate a constructive discussion. Often that means helping each person hear the other person’s perspective. Most people have a hard time listening when they are in the middle of a dispute. Sometimes the mediator needs to help people stay calm enough to think clearly. Sometimes we help people recognize why they think a certain outcome is crucial and find other ways to meet the need that underlies their preferred outcome. 

When did you first learn of the benefits of mediation?
I learned a little about how good mediation could be when I was getting divorced in the 1990s. I learned much more when I volunteered to mediate for a friend who had been in a custody battle for more than a year and a half. His ex-wife decided to give the process a chance even though she could reasonably have expected me to be biased in his favor. The process in that case was long, hard, stressful, and exhausting, but also successful. My friend came to an agreement with his ex on a custody and visitation schedule they could both live with. Their kids no longer had to live in an emotional war zone. Despite the parents’ history of hostility and frequent court hearings, they never went back to court. 

Have you had a personal experience where mediation helped?
Mediation helped my husband and me finalize some decisions about when our children would spend time with each of us. And, of course, I have had hundreds of experiences seeing mediation help our clients.

When did you decide to become a mediator?
After succeeding with my friend and his ex, I thought there probably were not many people who would be willing to put themselves into the middle of that kind of hostility, and maybe even fewer who could help the parents succeed in developing an agreement. So, I thought maybe that was the work I was supposed to be doing. It felt like a calling.

Can you tell us about the training and credentials?
The legislature created and the Supreme Court of Virginia oversees one of the best training programs for mediators in the country. You have to complete a specific set of programs to learn the information and skills you will need as a mediator. Then you have to co-mediate several cases with certified mentor mediators, do child support calculations, and write the agreement that two or more of your clients have developed. When one of your mentors says that you are ready to handle cases on your own, you can be certified. I got my training and apprenticeship opportunities from Northern Virginia Mediation Service, which has been doing a great job training mediators for decades. Our state also has continuing education requirements, including ethics training, for mediators who want to retain their certifications.

How long have you been mediating and what kept you in this field?
Professionally I have been mediating for 10 years. What keeps me in the field is seeing again and again how valuable mediation is for families. For example, in divorce cases, people who hire two attorneys to help them fight with each other spend tens of thousands of dollars, get angrier, more anxious, and more depressed, and have little control of the outcome of their disputes. In divorce mediation, people have professional support working together to solve their family’s shared problem. Most of our clients only spend $1,000 to $3,000 for our help creating and then writing their Marital Settlement Agreements. We don’t make the emotional distress worse, and the two clients have complete control of the decisions that get written into their agreement. “I still have a missionary feeling about this work. The world needs skilled, professional family mediators. That keeps me in the field.”

What spurred the growth of your practice and contributed to adding more mediators?
Before I was trained, mediators told me you cannot earn a living as a family mediator. I thought that was crazy. With so many families obviously in need of mediation services, how could it not be possible to earn enough money helping them? I set out to prove my advisors wrong. It took time to develop my practice, but after five years I realized that if I was getting one more new case per week than I already was, it would be more cases than I wanted to handle on my own. So, I invited other mediators I knew, including two of my mentors, to join my practice. I help the people who need us find us, the other mediators each take some of the cases, and we share the income.

What types of conflicts are ideal for the work of a mediator?
The topic of a conflict is less important than the willingness of the people involved to try to find solutions. Ideally, each person is willing to negotiate in good faith, each person wants to find a solution, and each person is able, perhaps with help from the mediator, to keep emotions from overwhelming his or her ability to think. When the people involved want to solve the family problem, it does not matter whether the problem is elder care planning, family business succession, marriage mediation, or reconnecting family members who have been estranged from each other.

How much time and money can mediation save, let’s say in an average divorce?
When going toward divorce through lawyers and court hearings, people usually spend $10,000 to $30,000 each, and sometimes spend as much as $100,000 per person. That’s a lot of money going out of the family and into the accounts of lawyers. Our clients rarely spend more than $3,000 total, for both parties, and often get better outcomes.  

Meet The Team of Colin Family Mediation Group LLC 

Virginia L Colin, Ph.D., Director
Formerly a research psychologist, Virginia Colin has been providing family mediation services professionally since 2009. She specializes in helping couples and ex-couples develop parenting plans and financial agreements that support their children’s security and healthy development and their own adult well-being. Focusing solely on family mediation, she is a founding member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators and in 2018 served as its President. Dr. Colin is also a certified mentor mediator. She is the co-author of The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia and the solo author of Human Attachment, “Divorce in Virginia”, “Infant Attachment: What We Know Now,” and a variety of other print and Internet publications. She was also the host of Family Matters, a Internet talk radio show you can still find on VoiceAmerica.com. She has experienced parenthood in many ways — single parent, foster parent, married parent, divorced parent, and remarried stepparent. She enjoys reading, gardening, walking in the woods, and playing Eurogames. 

Renee Kostick Reynolds, J.D. 
As a licensed attorney in DC since 1993, Renee has specialized in family law cases. She became interested in family mediation as a civil, more practical alternative for clients going through a divorce. In 2011, Renee served as the Family Intake Specialist at Northern Virginia Mediation Service. There she became well-versed in the legal trends in Virginia as they relate to divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, equitable distribution of assets and debt, tax issues upon divorce, and the standards and norms upon which the courts rely when deciding what would be in the best interests of children. In addition to helping private mediation clients, Renee enjoys biking, hiking, reading and finding new adventures with her husband and four children. 

Rick Schapira, P.E., J.D. 
As a licensed attorney in Virginia, Florida, and the District of Columbia, Rick has specialized in family and workplace mediation as a productive and efficient alternative to litigation. A retired senior executive, he was Deputy General Counsel of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He is a certified District Court and Circuit Court mediator for civil and family cases and is a certified mentor mediator. He is well-versed in Virginia law as it relates to divorce, co-parenting, distribution of assets and debts, tax issues upon divorce, and the standards and norms when deciding what would be in the best interests of children. As a mediator, he strives to assist his clients in reaching creative solutions to their specific situations. Rick enjoys scuba diving, kayaking, and spending time with his dogs. 

Dorothy Douglas Taft 
Dorothy brings to the mediation table her keen listening skills and decades of experience working in the US Congress, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the US Agency for International Development in positions that involved negotiation, diplomacy, mediation, and real life solutions to complicated problems. Her advocacy and policy work on internationally recognized political and human rights issues has taken Dorothy to more than 60 countries, requiring extensive cross-cultural communications. Having served since 2007 within her religious community as a counselor for those navigating life’s challenges, she has a deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics, working through loss, and identifying new pathways for moving forward. When time permits, Dorothy enjoys cycling, playing her violin or bagpipes, and the culinary arts. 

Angela Mojica 
Angela cares deeply about assisting parents and families through mediation, facilitating effective communication between the parties to help them identify and decide on matters that are key to the well-being of each member of the family. During her eight years of service as the full-time Bilingual Family ADR Case Coordinator in Washington DC, Angela was responsible for managing domestic relations mediation cases. Angela has also mediated family cases for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Fairfax and for the Prince William County Office of Dispute Resolution. Between 1995 and 2000, Angela was the Morale Welfare and Recreation representative for the USA Navy in Barcelona. During her travels Angela loves to explore and observe how families communicate and act. Angela speaks English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Catalan. 

Juliana Zoto Efessiou 
Juliana has more than 25 years of experience as a successful entrepreneur in a variety of businesses. Throughout her career, Juliana has been the point person for resolving conflict and helping parties in disputes reach mutually acceptable solutions. Over time, her focus shifted from workplace conflict resolution to family mediation. Having been divorced twice, Juliana is passionate about helping couples transition out of marriage with dignity and integrity. She has seen firsthand how litigation can tear a family apart emotionally and cause great financial damage. Juliana firmly believes mediation, not litigation, best serves the parties involved, especially the children. When not helping clients find common ground, Juliana enjoys the arts, Orange Theory, traveling with her husband, and spending as much time as possible with her grandchildren. 

For more information, visit ColinFamilyMediationgroup.com.