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Montana launches $1 million family mediation program

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Mark Moran

(Big Sky Connection) The state of Montana has allocated nearly $1 million to help settle domestic cases before they ever get to court.

The Montana Family Transition Project is for couples who are separating and have children. The program offers mediation, a formula for calculating child support, and legal advice for parents who need a parenting plan as part of their family law case.

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Saumya Thomas, program coordinator for Montana Legal Services, explained that a mediator is a neutral third party trained to help people reach an agreement - and stay out of court. 

"We take on a range of cases," she said. "We've worked with high-conflict parties who've been in court for a long period of time, and we've been able to shorten that process by going through mediation. Or we also just take really simple cases that can just take three to four hours of mediation time."

The family mediation program costs the state more than $944,000, but is free to couples who qualify. One or both people in the relationship must have incomes at 200% of the Federal Poverty Line.

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Despite the program's cost to Montana taxpayers, Thomas said the state will save money in reduced court expenses, since it will keep many of the higher-conflict cases from winding up in court. That should drastically reduce judicial costs and save judges' time. She added that it is also designed to keep both partners and their children safe. 

"If there's any domestic violence involved, they will make sure that the party is as comfortable as possible," she said. "It's their choice whether they participate at all and mediation can stop at any time. It's helpful for Montanans, and I think it gives them a lot more choices moving forward."

The family mediation program also offers self-help resources and other services. Applications are online at mtlsa.org.