Bar News - May 18, 2016
Opinion: Taking Stock of Supervised Visitation Services in New Hampshire
By: Pam Dodge
The dissolution of family relationships creates turmoil and conflict between many parents that often leaves children with a sense of confusion and instability, and, in some cases, may lead to lethal danger for children and non-offending parents. During these times, legal and social service systems are called upon to mitigate the conflict and provide needed supports. Supervised visitation centers can serve as one of the key resources for families experiencing the impact of domestic or sexual violence, substance abuse, neglect, or mental illness.
Developing safe and effective supervised visitation services and plans requires balancing critical safety concerns with efforts to foster continued family relationships, using scarce financial resources. To do this, it is important for stakeholders to come together to discuss challenges and work collectively to find the best solutions for families. That’s why the NH Bar Association Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project, in collaboration with NH Legal Assistance and with grant support from the Office on Violence Against Women, has organized a continuing legal education program, scheduled for Tuesday, June 14 in Concord, about supervised visitation services in New Hampshire.
When a court, Division of Youth and Families (DCYF), guardian ad litem, mental health facility, or other referring agency has determined that it is no longer appropriate for a parent to reside with his or her child, a family could be ordered to use the services of a supervised visitation center. There may be challenges, however, to implement supervised visitation; parents and service providers may disagree about the need and/or level of supervision, appropriate resources may not exist within a reasonable proximity, and costs associated with some centers may be prohibitive for families where free services are not available. Furthermore, the disparate resources that exist, to date, remain unregulated.
To promote a safe environment for visits, member agencies of the New Hampshire Family Visitation & Access Cooperative adhere to a domestic violence protocol that mandates complete separation between the residential parent and non-residential parent. This involves separate parking areas, entrances and exits, waiting areas, and staggered arrival and departure times. The cooperative is composed of three agencies; there are additional programs that supplement the need for visitation services throughout the state.
Despite the best efforts of all of these programs, tragedies have occurred, such as the 2013 fatal shooting of 9-year-old Joshua Savyon by his father at a supervised visitation center in Manchester. In response, Senate Bill 205 was passed and signed into law in June 2014. A key component of this legislation allows judges to stipulate supervised visitation only at a center that has a metal detection device and trained onsite security personnel.
Supervised visitation centers in New Hampshire have performed a vital role in promoting strong relationships between non-residential parents and their children. A residential parent using supervised visitation for several years commented: “I found that the center and its staff act in the best interest of the children. [The staff] provides them with a safe and comfortable environment in which to meet with their non-residential parent as well as help them to build a relationship that the children might not otherwise have been able to have with that parent.”
A non-residential parent who has been visiting his children for several years expressed his gratitude for this service: “It is a pleasant atmosphere, and the staff work hard to create as much of a warm place to be together as a family… they have made an extremely difficult situation much more bearable because of their kindness and help.”
Over the past several years, supervised visitation centers have been challenged with limited funding while noting an increase in referrals where offending parents demonstrate volatile behavior. Supervised visitation centers are essential resources for many families in New Hampshire. But supervised visitation is not a one-size-fits-all solution for families, according to Daniel Morin, director of child and adolescent services at Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, who oversees the Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center.
The CLE program on June 14 will feature an experienced panel of family court judges, supervised visitation professionals and crisis center advocates to explore circumstances that suggest when court-ordered supervised visitation is necessary, how centers operate, and ways the courts and legal practitioners can best implement the tools available to meet individual family needs. We hope those professionals who advocate for litigants in parenting matters across the state will join us for this important session.
For more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To register, please visit www.nhbar.org.
Pamela Dodge coordinates the domestic violence prevention projects of the NHBA Pro Bono Program. She served on a national panel to promote best practices for lawyers assisting self-represented victims of domestic violence in 2010 and was inducted in the NH Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Hall of Fame in 2012.