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Two supervised visitation centers lose funding, prepare to close 

  • Police assemble outside the YWCA in Manchester on Aug. 11, 2013. The state attorney general’s office said Muni Savyon, 54, of Manchester used a handgun to fatally shoot his son Joshua Savyon, 9, of Amherst, before fatally shooting himself during a supervised visitation in the YWCA office. AP file



Monitor staff
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Two supervised visitation centers in New Hampshire are set to close next month after not receiving the federal grant money they need to operate.

All R Kids in Jaffrey and the Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center have provided safe environments for parents and children in high-conflict and high-risk cases – cases often involving domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking or mental illness. The centers accept referrals primarily from the state’s family courts.

As the centers prepare to close their doors in just a few weeks, the future remains uncertain for more than 100 families who depend on the visitation services.

“We can’t quite be clear about what the alternative is going to be for these families,” All R Kids Coordinator Sam Lafortune told the Monitor. “People expect to have answers. The only thing I can tell them is they will need to go back to court and have their orders rewritten. If there was the chance they could be unsupervised, they’d already be unsupervised.”

Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly said state courts will prioritize requests to amend parenting plans and other agreements reached as part of a custody or divorce proceeding in light of the news. He said judges will have to weigh what other options, if any, exist given each unique situation, and assess the prospective danger for the child – and the parent victim – if an alternative is recommended.

“There is an objective assessment that can be used, but it’s clearly not foolproof,” Kelly said. “What most often ends up happening in the most dangerous cases is that visitation is prohibited. The question is: At what point do you begin allowing it? ... No one ever wants to make an order, and then learn there’s been an injury.”

The centers in Jaffrey and Nashua are part of the New Hampshire Visitation and Family Access Cooperative, which complies with national best practices and safety guidelines. Those guidelines provide the only real form of oversight because the state currently has no licensing requirement for supervised visitation centers. The Nashua center operates under the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, and All R Kids in Jaffrey is a program of Monadnock Family Services of Keene.

The Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen will be the only center left in the cooperative by year’s end. The Boscawen center is in a unique position because it is not dependent on federal money to operate; the center is funded largely out of the county budget.

Conversely, the Nashua and Jaffrey centers have long depended on federal dollars awarded by the Justice for Families program, which was authorized in 2013 by the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act to improve judicial response to families with a history of domestic and/or sexual violence. The Justice for Families program replaced the federal Safe Havens grant program, also run by the Office on Violence Against Women.

The grant program is highly competitive and, in recent years, there has been less federal funding available. This past grant cycle, no federal money was allocated to New Hampshire.

In July, Greater Nashua Mental Health Center’s Chief of Services Cynthia Whitaker made an internal announcement that the board of directors would be closing the visitation center in the city if it did not receive the Justice for Families grant. Stakeholders decided the center “did not fit the mission and vision” of the broader organization, according to advisory board meeting minutes.

Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center Coordinator Ann-Louise Petrillo said funding the Nashua center has always been a struggle, especially with such few grant sources available for supervised visitation centers. What saddens her most, she said, is that no effort was made to explore alternative funding sources for the center.

“I have huge concerns. These are human lives we’re talking about; these are children who need us,” Petrillo said. “Where is the responsibility going to lie now? I don’t know what would happen if Grandma May, for example, supervised the visits. I have huge concerns.”

Domestic violence-related homicides make up 59 percent of the state’s homicides over the last seven years, according to a biennial report from the New Hampshire Domestic Fatality Review Committee. In 2014 and 2015, domestic violence-related homicides represented 62 percent of all homicides in the state.

Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said supervised visitation centers provide “critical safety protections for families in crisis.” Without them, she said, children face a greater risk of victimization by a non-custodial parent.

“When supervised visitation options do not exist within a community, the court should consider restricting visitation until the parent has proven that they are no longer a danger to their child,” Grady Sexton said.

The coalition and its 13-member crisis centers work closely with New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Project, which provides legal representation to victims of domestic violence in restraining order hearings, divorce and custody cases. Erin Jasina, the co-director of the project, echoed Grady Sexton’s concerns about the future, noting the closure of visitation centers is a statewide issue.

“All of us need to come together and brainstorm about what is the safest solution for our state right now,” Jasina said.

Tragedy struck New Hampshire in August 2013 when Joshua Savyon, 9, of Amherst was shot and killed by his father, Muni Savyon, during a supervised visit at the Manchester YWCA. Savyon then shot himself. The murder-suicide shook the advocacy and judicial communities, as well as visitation centers across the state. The shooting brought fears about safety and security at these centers to the forefront, and ultimately the YWCA made the decision to end its supervised visitation service.

The Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center took on many of those families, Petrillo said.

“Where will these people go now?” she asked.

Few visitation centers are still operating in New Hampshire, including those in Boscawen, Dover and West Lebanon. For families north of Plymouth, options are virtually nonexistent.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)