Mediator Highlight: Jennifer Larrabee
Content advisory: This interview mentions child abuse and death by gun violence.
Jennifer Larrabee has been a CCR volunteer mediator since 2021. She joined us for a conversation about her mediation journey, including how she uses mediation skills in her work as an advocate for abused and neglected children.
What initially drew you to mediation?
I came to mediation quite by accident! I really didn’t know much about mediation at all. I had taken an enrichment study group at our church, and one of the members was a volunteer mediator at CCR. When she told me more about what she did with CCR, I said “Wow, that just sounds really intriguing.”
In February 2021, I went into the 40-hour Mediation Skills Training for personal growth - just to try something different. It really blew me away, and it felt like a good complement to what I do professionally. It was truly by accident that it was a good match. I participated in the Mediator Mentorship Program later that year.
How has mediation shaped your professional life?
For the last 25 years, I have been a court-appointed special advocate or CASA for abused and neglected children in the court system. When I did my mediation training, I realized that a lot of what I do as a CASA is kind of like mediation. There are many different parties and a tremendous amount of conflict, and I’m a neutral party. Like mediation, they also come with positions: the biological parents’ position is to have their children returned to their care, and sometimes the foster parents’ position is that the kids shouldn’t go back.
Mediation has provided more structure to what I was already doing. The needs and interests model helps me better support families by focusing more on their needs than their positions. I don’t have any control over the outcome, but my role as an active listener for the families has really benefited from the mediation skills I’ve learned.
What types of cases have you mediated? Is there a specific case type that you find most interesting, or most challenging?
Because of my professional experience, I prefer mediating cases that are very heavy in emotions: for example, the stalking/no contact cases, and the juvenile restorative justice cases. I also got additional training through RSI to do Child Protection Mediation in Kane County, which is something I didn’t even know existed. In those cases, parties work out an agreement outside of court to provide a good outcome for the children involved. When you’re in court on a juvenile abuse case, it’s kind of like being in court for anything. You have 5 or 10 minutes, and it’s not an opportunity for any party to really speak. In these mediations, you have hours for everyone to hear everyone else’s needs - hopefully including the child’s.
Is there a specific case you’ve mediated that stands out as particularly memorable?
My first case was by far the most memorable! It was one of those cases that went at least 5 hours, and it was a stalking/no contact case. The two parties were a mother and a girlfriend. The person they had in common was a son and boyfriend who had been tragically killed by gun violence. There was also a baby daughter involved in the situation. Basically, there was so much misunderstanding due to the heightened emotions of their common family member being killed.
Using the BIA model (before the incident, during the incident, and after the incident) was such a good way to frame it because their relationship was perfectly fine prior to the incident. The incident was so tragic, and it represented so many things to each of them that they were having such difficulty communicating. It just escalated and escalated to a place where one of them was threatening the other. Throughout the mediation, they agreed that neither of them wanted to see each other again. It was also very intense in terms of what they were saying - they were really trying to hurt one another verbally.
The whole time, this baby had been on Zoom with us. In some ways, she was a common interest for both parties. And by the end of the mediation, they were discussing how they’d spend holidays together: Thanksgiving, Christmas. They just needed so much space and time to vent without hanging up on one another, which I think had been the pattern until that point. Without mediation, I don’t know if they ever would have been able to start repairing their relationship.
What has mediation taught you about yourself? About other people?
I’ve always been interested in people’s stories, and I’ve always been a very active listener. People tend to open up about their whole lives to me, and I think it’s because I show a genuine interest. I love CCR's Reflective Practice Group because I get to listen to other mediators share their stories. Mediation has taught me a different way of listening: trying to be more mindful of what the listener needs from me, instead of focusing on the facts.
Overall, people do not feel listened to. I think that is the crux of why people have conflict - they are not feeling heard. They might be repeating the same thing in different ways, and the other person is discounting what they say. People are often really focused on their own perspectives.
What advice would you give to new mediators?
Don’t be too hard on yourself! Halfway through my mentorship I thought, “Wow, I’m terrible at this - I can’t do this! Why did I think I could do this?” You just have to stick with it. It’s definitely uncomfortable at times, and you might not know what question to ask next. You just have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and get through it.
What I really love about mediation is knowing that it’s not for me to solve. I get to remind myself that I’m just a facilitator in this process, and it’s not my job to fix it.
Thank you Jennifer for sharing your mediation experience and advice! CCR relies on around 180 volunteers like Jennifer to provide free, high-quality mediation services across Cook County. To learn more about becoming a CCR volunteer, visit our Volunteer Opportunities page.