Merrimack County closing visitation center to make way for new program

  • Kara Wyman, Merrimack County director of human service (left), and Bethany Cottrell, Merrimack County community relations coordinator, in the visitation center at the county offices in Boscawen on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. The room will be repurposed into office space for new employees coming in the Navigation program. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kara Wyman, Merrimack County director of human service (left), and Bethany Cottrell, Merrimack County community relations coordinator, in the visitation center at the county offices in Boscawen on Wednesday. The room will be repurposed into office space for new employees coming in the Navigators program. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Ross Cunningham, the county administrator for Merrimack County, outside the Merrimack County offices in Boscawen.

  • Bethany Cottrell, Merrimack County community relations coordinator, in the conference office room that will be converted into office space for new employees. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/17/2022 3:09:37 PM

In a small room in the Merrimack County Visitation Center, Disney princess stickers line the beige walls. Toy trucks, board games and a Little Tikes plastic kitchen are at the ready for children to play. This room, along with three others down the hall, provides neutral spaces for parents to have supervised visitation time with their children.

At the end of the month, the visitation center will close down. Its services will be redirected to a new County Navigators program designed to help a larger subset of residents by providing assistance with non-custodial visitation, substance misuse, mental health and other resources. 

Families were notified of the center’s closure on May 10 in a letter. 

“Merrimack County has made the difficult decision to repurpose resources and efforts into other programs in order to serve a greater number of community members and help more families and individuals in need,” the letter read.  

Rather than hosting visitation hours at the center, the Navigators program will outsource assistance to third-party providers and area non-profits to connect people to the services they need.

“There's so many service providers and so many programs in our county and in our state, but so many of us don't even know how to access them,” said Bethany Cottrell, the county’s community relations coordinator. 

The visitation center was one of two in the state that provided a neutral space for non-custodial parents to see their children. In 2017, two visitation centers in the state, the Nashua Visitation Center and All Our Children in Jaffery, closed their doors after funding cuts. The Merrimack County center oversaw 40 to 45 visits a month, Cottrell said. 

Initially, the purpose of the visitation center was to provide a safe space for parents with histories of abuse or domestic violence to visit their children. 

However, referrals for services have shifted in the past two years to include more requests for mental health and substance misuse. That signaled to Cottrell and others the need to expand services. 

One goal of the new program will be to connect these services for people, according to Kara Wyman, the county director of human services. 

“We’ve identified so many common social needs – housing, transportation, workforce, child care. All those needs are living inside of a silo,” she said. “This effort is really born of breaking down silos, sharing information, developing resources with our community partners.”

Ross Cunningham, the county administrator for Merrimack County, believes the redesign will allow the county to met more needs than just child visitation. 

“To opening lines of communication is a goal of ours,” he said. “That's one of many things that we're trying to do with the navigator program is be a resource and a source at the same time, but not be doing the direct work.”

Navigators can be utilized to supervise non-custodial visits at the physical center if that’s the best place it should occur, but they could also help a family apply for rental assistance or create a parenting plan.

The Navigator Program will also allow for families to meet with a provider in various locations. Currently, there are no windows in some of the visitation rooms. And if families wanted to share a meal together, they have to bring food to the center.  

“In my family we have family time over cooking meals or spending together time together at the park and you couldn’t do that here,” Cottrell said. “There was a need to sort of shift that and focus on how can we support these parents so that way they can build those relationships with their kids.”

Although the center will technically close, two of the visitation rooms will remain as is with toys and couches as space for family meetings. The other two will be converted into offices for navigators to help with housing applications or parenting plans. 

For Cottrell and Wyman, the idea for the Navigator Program has been years in the making. It stemmed from the pandemic shutdown, when the visitation center had to close its doors temporarily. This forced them to help redirect clients to various services. Now, the program will permanently fill this gap. 

“It’s opening more doors from the bad that came of COVID, all the loss of services and all the loss of processes,” Wyman said. “The good is that now we know where we can send people and how we can navigate through the system.”

Merrimack County is in the process of hiring five navigators, with plans to hire an additional two in the fall. Navigator services are free for all county residents. To contact the navigator program for assistance call 603-796-6880 or email 


Michaela Towfighi is a Report for America corps member covering the Two New Hampshires for the Monitor. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in public policy and journalism and media studies in 2022. At Duke she covered education, COVID-19, the 2020 election and helped edit stories about the Durham County Courthouse for The 9th Street Journal and the triangle area's alt-weekly Indy Week. Her story about a family grappling with a delayed trial for a fatal car accident in Concord won first place in Duke’s Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism. Towfighi is an American expat who calls London, England, home despite being born in Boston.

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