Bar News - August 20, 2014
Security, Cost Concerns Lead to Visitation Center Closures
By: Kristen Senz
As federal funding dries up and concerns over safety increase, supervised visitation centers across New Hampshire are closing and reducing their hours as they try to maintain services for families and the court.
Above and below: Supervised visitation rooms at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen.
Meanwhile, over the past several years, demand has increased for supervised visitation services, which allow parents in high-conflict and high-risk cases to have contact with their children in a safe environment. Marilyn Mahoney, a Manchester attorney who has handled domestic violence cases for more than 30 years, said that since the Manchester YWCA discontinued its supervised visitation services earlier this year, parents in high-risk cases have had few alternatives.
“The most critical thing right now, from my perspective, is just the lack of availability of good centers that can do this, because without these services, parents either just aren’t going to visit at all, or they are going to do it in a place that isn’t safe, and that’s unacceptable,” she said.
No one seems to know exactly how many supervised visitation centers there are in New Hampshire, let alone what services each offers, what safety measures they have in place and which ones have the capacity to accept new cases. With no service standards or oversight to ensure compliance, the services vary widely from center to center.
That makes these tough cases even more difficult for the family court judges who determine when to order fully supervised child visitation.
“The absence of high-quality visitation services makes it very difficult for the judges who hear these cases, because there may be very good reason for supervised visitation and yet no resources in the community,” said NH Circuit Court Judge Susan Carbon, the former director of the US Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women (OVW). “There’s all kinds of risk, and trying to assess risk is not a science; it’s very difficult to do that, and risk is fluctuating, so someone may be at higher or lower risk at different points in time.”
The tragic shooting of 9-year-old Joshua Savyon by his father in a murder-suicide at the YWCA visitation center in Manchester last August shook up victim advocates, judges, attorneys and supervised visitation center operators across the state. Fears about safety, security and civil liability came to the forefront. For some, like Mona Russell, executive director of Emerge Family Advocates and chair of the New Hampshire Family Visitation and Access Cooperative, the sadness and fear remain close to the surface.
“I tear up even now,” she says, her voice cracking. “It’s the hell that we live with every day: What if we slip up? What if we make a mistake? So, here we are a year later, and this is my reaction. It’s devastating. There’s no way to put fault on it; the fault is the father’s, and what can you do? This is not always a very pretty business.”
Russell runs Emerge Family Advocates, a White River Junction, Vt.-based visitation center that serves Grafton and Sullivan counties in New Hampshire on a total annual budget of $174,000, which includes administration of satellite centers in Plymouth, NH, and Windham County, Vermont. Russell is the administrator, intake operator, direct service provider, security guard and janitor. With the help of a few part-time, masters-level supervisors, Emerge serves about 100 families per year. The organization doesn’t have the resources to follow all of the national best practices, but Russell and her small staff are passionate about the work and they do the best they can.
“We’re supposed to keep people safe, but we don’t have the funding to do all the important work we need to do to accomplish that, and a lot of it is casework,” Russell says. “It’s not just the guns. You need to know when things change, when the parents have gone to court. You need to make sure that whoever gets that information is passing it on. Have they given up hope? Are they suicidal? It’s all these things in every single case.”
In response to elevated security concerns following the shooting, the NH Legislature recently passed a law enabling judges to require that child visitation by a non-custodial parent take place at a facility with metal detectors and trained security personnel on-site.
But that added security costs money. Sue Dearborn, grants manager at the NH Attorney General’s Office, said her office is still working to define what it means to have “trained security personnel on-site.”
“They’re not comfortable without an officer, but it costs too much,” said Dearborn, who administers the federal Safe Havens grant and limited state funding to six New Hampshire centers, including Emerge. “What’s the alternative? Are you going to have an advocate who’s making $10 an hour use a wand on somebody? What if they find a weapon? There are so many questions that don’t seem to have good answers at this point.”
The YWCA in Manchester, which still provides supervised child exchanges, was one of six visitation sites in the state that had received federal funding through Safe Havens. Those centers made up the New Hampshire Family Visitation and Access Cooperative and were required by the grant program to comply with national best practices and safety guidelines – the only form of oversight for supervised visitation centers in the state. The YWCA, which did not conduct a metal detector screening the day of the shooting, was removed from the cooperative late last year.
Demand for Services
The financial and security challenges have recently led several supervised visitation centers to close or cut their hours, reducing capacity to meet the increasing demand for services.
In addition to the Manchester YWCA, a private counseling center in Amherst discontinued supervised visitation services in April. Centers in Nashua and Antrim have reduced visitation to one day per week. Operators of a new center expected to open in Dover this fall anticipate an immediate waiting list of up to 200 families.
The NH Circuit Court doesn’t track how many domestic violence and parenting orders issued each year require parents to use supervised visitation centers, but case statistics provide a rough idea of the demand.
In 2013, there were 1,236 domestic violence final orders granted statewide. In those cases that involved children, almost all contained orders about visitation or custody, according to Betsy Paine, the former domestic violence specialist for the NH Circuit Court. In 2012, the most recent year for which marital case statistics were available, 1,864 of the 7,943 divorce cases filed involved parenting orders, some of which involved supervised visitation.
Paine said the court plans to start tracking orders for supervised visitation in the future.
Federal Funding Cuts
The federal Safe Havens grant program, run by the OVW, has provided $3.2 million in visitation center funding to New Hampshire since 2002, according to Dearborn. But the current grant ends next month, and funding levels recently were cut almost in half as Safe Havens was replaced with the Justice for Families program.
Judge Carbon, the former director of OVW, said federal resources are being directed at services that protect and assist domestic violence victims and their children. “It’s just a matter of prioritizing how we’re going to spend our limited resources, and those are the judgment calls that have been made,” she said.
Additionally, although most visitation centers only charge families a minimal fee for visits on a sliding scale, the Justice for Families grant program will require that federally funded centers provide services at no charge.
“That’s going to be a big issue for a lot of centers,” said Brianna Vassillion, program director at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen. “A lot of people use the cost as an excuse for why they can’t pursue services here, so that’s the theory behind [eliminating the fees]. On the other side, we do lose that accountability. Part of the reason we charge people is not really to make money, but to hold them accountable and make sure they show up for visits.”
The Merrimack County Visitation Center is the only center in the state that receives local funding and has security services provided by the county sheriff’s department.
The center receives about $350,000 in county funds annually and is part of the county’s human services department, according to Merrimack County Administrator Kathleen Bateson. The county and its officials have supported the center since it opened in Concord in 1997.
Vassillion feels confident in the center’s security practices and its close relationship with the sheriff’s department. Still, she says, “We do the best we can to minimize risk, but we could never guarantee that something could not happen here.”
The Merrimack County center is open for visits four days per week, including weekends, and Vassillion said there are plenty of openings.
Paine, who worked as the domestic violence specialist at the NH Circuit Court for nearly 20 years, said local funding for visitation centers might be the only way to keep their doors open. Dearborn agrees.
“The vast majority of the clients that utilize these centers are court-ordered,” Dearborn said. “You can’t just look at grant money as being the solution; it needs to be a community-based solution to a community problem.”
New Seacoast Center
Scott Hampton is a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with domestic violence issues, including as the operator of a supervised visitation center in Strafford County many years ago. In 2012, Hampton secured a $350,000 Safe Havens grant for a new supervised visitation center and recently signed a lease for space at 130 Central Avenue in Dover.
Hampton said the center will adhere to all of the national best practices, including having separate entrances, parking and waiting areas for each parent, armed security officers and panic buttons in visitation rooms. It has taken more than a year to complete the planning phase for the new center.
“A poorly run service is worse than no service at all, so we really have to go slow, even though there is this tremendous need, and that’s going to be frustrating for everyone – the courts and the families,” Hampton said.
The grant will fund the operation of the center for the next two years. After that, Hampton is hoping Strafford County will find a way to support it.
Russell, of Emerge, said she has so far been able to keep up with the demand for visitation services in her area, but if things don’t change soon, she might have to create a waiting list, even though she shudders at the thought.
“I can hardly keep up with them, but families in crisis cannot be put on a waiting list, because what will happen is that the judges will not court-order them to a supervised visitation center, and they’ll be out in the community doing visits and exchanges,” she said. “If you’ve been in a domestic violence situation, how terrifying and upsetting and triggering is it to see and hear and be around that person? So, we can’t put them on a waiting list. Our backs are against the wall.”
New protocols issued by the court in December encourage judges to familiarize themselves with the services offered in their communities, and court officials say attorneys should research local centers as well.
“I think [attorneys] really need to be able to articulate to the court what the service is that’s being provided. They really need to do their research,” said Paine. “What does ‘supervised’ mean? What kind of security is there? People are going to have to be really clear.”
Meanwhile, in addition to allowing judges to be more specific in visitation orders, NH Senate Bill 205 also formed a legislative committee to investigate visitation issues, including whether supervised visitation centers should be certified or licensed by the state. The committee is scheduled to make recommendations to lawmakers by Nov. 1.
Family Court Enhancement Project
As communities and courts across the country struggle to sustain supervised visitation centers with standardized services, the OVW has recognized that this is just one of many domestic violence-related issues that courts could be handling better.
In partnership with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the Battered Women’s Justice Project and the National Institute for Justice, the OVW initiated the Family Court Enhancement Project in four pilot courts last fall. The project seeks to improve custody and visitation decision-making for families that have experienced domestic violence and to implement new approaches to keeping victims and their children safe.
Editor’s note: Over the coming months, Bar News plans to cover additional family law topics, including issues related to domestic violence in divorce cases. To provide feedback on this article or suggest future topics, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.