Fighting Back: Effort to revive supervised visitation centers in N.H.

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Strafford County deputy sheriff Tracy Hayes stands by the frosted door at the visitation center in Dover. Hayes is part of the team present at visitation to help families feel safe.

  • Visitation Supervisor Paula Kelley-Wall and Scott Hampton stand in a family visiting room at the Strafford County Supervised Visitation and Exchange Center in Dover. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

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

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

Monitor staff
Published: 2/3/2019 6:55:45 PM

An explosion of color greets children who walk a short hallway, past a dividing wall and into a large room that resembles a family living space with plush couches, shelves of board games, piles of books and toys so abundant they scatter the carpeted floor.

Secured to the back of the door that separates the room from a larger public office space is a small basketball hoop that entertains father and son during their hour-long visit each week.

Privacy film gives a stained glass look to two single-hung windows but prevents anyone in the parking lot from looking in and those on the inside from seeing out.

A staff member sits nearby monitoring the visit while a camera feeds live video to computer screens in another room, reminding father and son they are not alone while they converse and play.

These are just some of the protective layers built into the Strafford County Supervised Visitation and Exchange Center where supervised visits between parents and children take place two evenings and one weekend day. A metal detector, armed sheriff’s deputy and a panic button that rings to Dover police are more obvious reminders of the unique safety risks inherent in every domestic violence case referred to the center.

“There is a lot of risk in what we’re doing. We have to assume that every family is a potential lethality,” said Visitation Supervisor Paula Kelley-Wall, who is also the director of the Crisis Center for Central New Hampshire in Concord.

Judges, attorneys and batterers intervention experts agree that New Hampshire’s visitation centers provide an important and needed service to families torn apart by domestic violence. But there are divisions in the victim advocacy community about whether the state should expand the service or if the safety risks are too great.

Funding challenges have prevented many centers from surviving long-term, particularly after federal grants run out.

Each year, the New Hampshire court system sees more than 4,000 divorces involving children where domestic violence may be present but is unreported. Additionally, the state’s family courts recorded more than 1,200 domestic violence cases last year that involved a child. At least a third of those cases – if not half – could benefit from access to a supervised visitation center, legal experts say.

The closure of Nashua’s center more than one year ago left Hillsborough County, the state’s most populous region, without any supervised visitation centers. Last year, that county’s family court heard more than 350 domestic violence cases involving a child.

Manchester’s YWCA chose to terminate its visitation services in 2014, months after 9-year-old Joshua Savyon was shot and killed by his father. Muni Savyon was scanned by a hand-held metal detector before previous visits but on that Sunday in August 2013 he was allowed through without a search. Staff told investigators with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office that the YWCA, also a victim crisis center, had been “loose” on enforcing a policy requiring the scans after funding cuts reduced police security.

A House bill before lawmakers this session aims to create a statewide supervised visitation program administered by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Under the bill, the department would contract with one or more qualified organizations interested in operating a visitation center, for a total of 10 with one in each county. A center that serves 15 families per week, each with two-hour visits, is estimated to cost the state roughly $200,000 annually.

Another bill proposed in the House would make it a requirement for anyone operating a supervised visitation center to be licensed by DHHS and to follow protocols established by the commissioner.

Unlike child care centers, there are no licensing requirements in New Hampshire for visitation centers. The centers in Merrimack and Strafford counties comply with national best practices and safety guidelines that call for metal detectors, separate entrances for custodial and non-custodial parents, as well as staggered arrival and departure times. Experts say they’re concerned that with so few centers available “pop-up” centers – which don’t adhere to the same federal standards – will become more prevalent in underserved communities and put families at risk.

“We’ve already had one death and I don’t think that can be highlighted enough,” said Erin Jasina, director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Project.

Qualifying cases

Supervised visitation centers date back to the late 1970s when they provided a service for families involved in the child protection system. Early centers became the place where vulnerable children who had been removed from the home met with a parent as an initial step in the reunification process, said Scott Hampton, the founder of Ending the Violence, based in Dover.

As courts faced more complex parenting disputes, the services provided by visitation centers evolved and communities began to recognize the need to help families experiencing domestic violence.

When a family court judge orders supervised visitation, each parent must still go through an intensive orientation process. Some cases are simply too dangerous for even a secure visitation center to take on.

Hampton recalled one father who said he “loved the concept” because a center provided him the chance to know where his victim was going to be and how long she was going to be there.

“If the abuser is viewing the center as an access point to the other parent rather than an opportunity to build a relationship with his or her children, then they are dangerous, intent on abusing the system and will not qualify,” he said.

Center staff try to keep abreast of when restraining orders are due to expire and when families have upcoming court dates so they know in advance if a visit could be more difficult than previous ones, Kelley-Wall said.

“We really have to be tuned in to how safe a person is on a particular day,” she said.

For those families not accepted or without access to a center, the alternatives are limited to include supervised visitation with a family member or third party, or no visitation at all.

“By virtue of someone being ordered to supervised visitation means there’s a question of dangerousness,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “We need to take a step back and ask, ‘Should that parent have access to that child?’ The court should feel empowered to remove the rights of the parent when a child is in a situation where they are being or could be harmed by exposure.”

Jasina agreed that parents must demonstrate an ability and a desire to have a safe relationship with their children through completion of batterers intervention, parenting classes, counseling and/or drug testing.

“If they’re more concerned about pride and rights and say, ‘It’s my natural right to parent this child so I’ll do whatever I want,’ then they are not committed to keeping that child safe or considering the child’s best interests,” she said.

When All R Kids in Jaffrey and the Greater Nashua Supervised Visitation Center closed their doors in December 2017, more than 100 families were affected and had to return to their respective family courts to request amendments to parenting plans.

“When those centers closed, the judiciary stopped seeing visitation centers as an option,” Kelley-Wall said. “Our waiting list didn’t grow — it cleared up. The orders have really slowed down since because the judges are afraid that the rest of the centers are closing so they’re looking for alternatives. Unfortunately, the alternatives that allow contact aren’t safe.”

Looking ahead

Former Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly and Family Court Judge Susan Carbon said they could not overstate the level of concern judges should have when approaching cases of domestic violence, especially when children are secondary victims.

“No one ever wants to be in a position where you make an order and there is an injury,” Kelly said.

Without a solution, advocates recommend any parent who is deemed a safety threat should be denied visitation.

Carbon said there is a level of comfort in knowing that secure centers provide an alternative that still allows some parental contact in cases where unsupervised visitation is inappropriate.

“In the end, it may very well mean we have a lot of kids and parents who won’t have contact because we don’t have a safe visitation center to provide the space for it,” said Carbon, who previously served as the director of the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women.

Members of the judiciary and victim advocates said they’re especially concerned about the potential for “pop-up” centers that don’t follow national best practices and accept anyone to make a profit.

“For those who are just hanging out a shingle, and we’ve got a number in this area, we can’t endorse them and families should be checking them out carefully before signing up,” Carbon said. “If someone is supervising a visit and not fully trained on how to recognize and understand domestic violence – which can be extremely subtle and nuanced – that person may be facilitating a visit that is harmful.”

A commission established to study visitation centers in New Hampshire documented in a 2014 report an unmet need for centers statewide, especially north of Plymouth, and concern over the state’s inability to monitor existing facilities.

Kelly said the future of supervised visitation in New Hampshire does not rest on any one agency or individual but on the state as a whole.

“We need to see this as a problem that is affecting local communities and step up and provide the dollars to support it,” he said. “Federal funds aren’t meant to last forever – they’re meant to provide a service and then to have communities take over that service.”

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