Bill to expand supervised visitation in N.H. spurs disagreement among advocates

  • Brianna Vassillion (left), Ann-Louise Petrillo and Scott Hampton testified on Jan. 29, 2019, in support of House Bill 565 which would direct the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services to issue a request for proposals to establish a supervised visitation center in each county. Vassillion, Petrillo and Hampton all work in visitation services. Alyssa Dandrea—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/30/2019 5:01:39 PM

A father entered the Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center with a loaded firearm in his briefcase but was arrested before ever seeing his child.

“All (he) had to do was pull the trigger,” Nashua police Captain Kerry Baxter testified before lawmakers Tuesday in Concord.

The incident was not the first of its kind for the visitation center, which shuttered in December 2017 due to financial hardship. Baxter also recalled the time a father arrived for a supervised visit with a knife on a lanyard around his neck. Security stopped him at the front door.

The risk of serious injury or deadly intentions in high-risk cases involving domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental illness or drug addiction is why several experts who testified before a House committee said they’re backing a legislative proposal to create a monitored statewide visitation network. Baxter, attorneys and those who work in domestic violence said supervised visitation centers that follow federal safety protocols are needed by families in every community.

Currently, visitation services and monitored exchanges of children are provided in only Boscawen, Dover and Lebanon. Several centers closed their doors in recent years, mainly because federal grants ran dry and alternative funding options never materialized.

A bill before the Committee on Child and Family Law would create a network of centers administered by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to allow for a center in each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties. A center that serves 15 families per week, each with two-hour visits, is estimated to cost the state roughly $200,000 annually.

“Expanding the availability of supervised visitation centers fills a huge void in our system and would allow judges on a state-wide basis to confidently allow for visitation, where appropriate and in the best interests of the children,” Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King wrote in a statement read aloud during Tuesday’s public hearing.

While the bill has broad support, some members of the victim advocacy community – including the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence – said they can’t fully endorse the proposal. The coalition supports the regulation and oversight of visitation centers but it opposes the use of state tax dollars to fund their expansion in New Hampshire.

“We feel that the establishment of 10 brick-and-mortar visitation centers across the state sends the wrong message to courts: that the rights of a violent parent supersede a child’s physical and emotional right to safety,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s public affairs director.

Instead, she said, the coalition believes in strengthening the state’s existing child protection laws to ensure mechanisms are in place so that an abusive parent is held accountable prior to being granted visitation or custody rights.

“Officer Baxter’s example of a man coming to a visitation center with a loaded gun is exactly why I oppose this bill,” said Massachusetts attorney Karen McCall, who worked in legal services in New Hampshire and, at one time, the coalition. “Expanding supervised visitation centers is a green light to the judicial system to feel like they have a safe place to send people who have no business being around their children.”

McCall said New Hampshire has consistently ruled in favor of allowing children the chance to develop a relationship with both parents.

“But if we’re honest, we recognize that children deserve a relationship with both parents when the parents are capable of being responsive parents, who respond to their needs, refrain from traumatizing them and refrain from abusing their partner or caretaker in front of them,” she said.

Those calling for the expansion of visitation services said they too understand the importance of prioritizing children’s safety and acting with their best interests in mind.

“Visitation centers allow parents the opportunity to nurture and grow in their relationship with their children, but also ensure that those relationships are developing in a safe and positive environment,” said Erin Jasina, Domestic Violence Project Director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

All sides agreed that some offenders pose even too great a risk for supervised visitation centers – and, in those cases, judges should deny parents’ requests.

Under the bill, visitation service providers could only be accepted into the statewide network if they have metal detectors and law enforcement on site. Centers that are non-compliant risk losing their funding and status.

The Strafford County Visitation Center in Dover has a deputy sheriff on site and invites all Dover police officers to learn the layout in case of an emergency. Panic buttons ring to the department’s dispatch line.

“Some people say, ‘aren’t you going crazy with all this?’ I have one word of wisdom: Manchester,” said Scott Hampton, the center’s project coordinator and founder of an organization called Ending the Violence.

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 YWCA in Manchester. 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.

“If there are those risks at visitation centers, imagine what the risks are outside of visitation centers,” Hampton said.

If centers aren’t an option for families, officials say they fear an increase in family-supervised visits – whether that’s at a grandparent’s or cousin’s house – and child custody exchanges occurring outside local restaurants.

“I look at this as another piece of the puzzle in terms of protecting children in New Hampshire,” Baxter said.

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



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