Fighting Back: Safety first at Boscawen visitation center 

  • A supervised visitation room at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen. —Courtesy

  • A supervised visitation room at the Merrimack County Visitation Center in Boscawen. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 2/3/2019 7:03:09 PM

Merrimack County has provided visitation services for parents and children in high-conflict and high-risk cases for more than two decades, outlasting a wave of visitation center closures in other New Hampshire communities, mainly south of Concord, since 2008.

Since the Merrimack County Visitation Center opened in December 1997, it has provided visitation services to almost 1,500 families. Approximately 50 to 75 families use the center annually for visitation services alone; some families will continue to come once a week for years, while others will use the center for a few visits and then move on, Director Brianna Vassillion said.

What began as a division of the county attorney’s office has grown over the years into its own department with services ranging from fully-supervised to semi-supervised visits, in addition to monitored exchanges to allow for the safe transfer of children from one parent to another. Today, the center in Boscawen is one of three supervised visitation centers in New Hampshire; its counterpart, the Strafford County Supervised Visitation and Exchange Center, opened its doors in Dover in 2014, and the privately-run Waypoint serves the Upper Valley and communities in Vermont.

Officials say part of what makes the Merrimack County center unique is the significant financial support it receives from county taxpayers who foot the majority of the annual operational costs. Backed by county administrators, the commissioners and residents, the center is available to families in Concord and more than two dozen other municipalities in the Capital Region. In 2018, the county budgeted $418,233 to help cover the majority of expenses and to supplement two grants, totaling $47,380.

Conversely, similar facilities in the state have shuttered after not receiving increasingly-competitive federal grants they relied on to provide services. Absent an alternative and long-term funding plan backed by their county and/or municipality, many visitation centers did not survive after a few years, and others grappled with growing security concerns after a murder-suicide at the Manchester-based YWCA where a father killed his son during a visit.

Visitation centers in Manchester, Plymouth, Salem are no longer in existence and, more recently, All R Kids in Jaffrey and the Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center closed after grant funding ran dry in late 2017. Unlike the Merrimack County center, the facilities in Nashua and Jaffrey served a larger geographic area.

“In an ideal world, I would love for our center to provide visitation services to every family who needs them, but as a county taxpayer and an employee of the county I understand there has to be some thought, and it’s not realistic that Merrimack County can take on the needs of much of the state of New Hampshire,” Vassillion said. “Our focus will always remain on providing services to Merrimack County at no cost. We are, however, going to see what we can do to help other families in need and lessen the blow to other sections of the state.”

Staff members have tracked since 2015 requests for services from families outside of Merrimack County. That total currently sits at 210.

“That number alone is very scary because I’m sure that’s only a fraction of the individuals in need,” Vassillion said.

The county’s commissioners are working closely with visitation center staff to weigh options for serving a limited number of families in need outside Merrimack County. The center can currently serve a maximum of 30 to 40 families, depending on the type of service requested, before it must start a waitlist. Should the center expand its services to out-of-county residents as space allows, those new clients would have to pay an undetermined fee per visit.

While the center receives some grant funding through the state’s Division of Child Support Services, lawmakers have yet to earmark funding specifically to support the operation of visitation centers in each county.

Vassillion, who has worked in Merrimack County for more than 13 years, said the center is often at capacity and that supervised visitation is its most utilized service. The center does not currently have a waiting list but availability is “extremely limited,” she said.

The Merrimack County Sheriff’s Department, now housed a floor below the center, provides security for those visits, as well as during separate orientations with custodial and non-custodial parents prior to a family’s acceptance. Each parent has designated entrances and waiting rooms, and their arrival and departure times are staggered. Although rare, the center has turned away parents due to safety concerns, Vassillion said.

When family court judges order supervised visitation, they do so as part of a parenting plan in a child custody case separate from any pending criminal proceedings. Supervised visitation is ordered in the most volatile of domestic violence cases.

The Merrimack County center has historically received orders primarily for fathers when the court has made a finding of domestic violence. However, the center has seen a shift in their client base in the past four years, but not because of a worsening domestic violence problem; rather, the statewide drug crisis has led to an uptick in referrals for mothers suffering from mental health and substance abuse disorders. Co-occurring issues are also common. Additionally, both parents may require supervised visitation with a child who is living with grandparents or another relative.

“We realize the potential for real risks for these families,” Vassillion said. “Yes, there are cases where there should be no visitation, but it’s also not realistic for these families not to have the option of visitation solely because there are no visitation centers in their communities.”

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