BURLINGTON -- Divorcing parents who require a supervised space in which to visit their children will now have to look outside of Chittenden County. Burlington's Family Connection Center on North Winooski Avenue, the site in the county offering supervised visitation services, closed July 7.
FCC board member and State Representative Mark Larson (D-Burlington) says a budget shortfall and a small client base led to the demise of the nonprofit. Other advocates suggest the center's departure reflects the state's inadequate support for supervised visitation services.
There are currently nine programs in the state dedicated to supervised visitation; they're funded by federal and state grants, as well as sliding-scale services. These sites allow non-custodial parents to visit their children in a neutral space. Parents can also drop their children off with center staff, and thereby avoid contact with a former spouse. Most clients are referred by the courts or social-service agencies.
This set-up is ideal for domestic violence situations, says Anera Foco, agency coordinator for Women Helping Battered Women. "They provide safety both for the children and for victims of domestic violence," she says."
The programs don't just help battered women. Joe Verdine is a grateful former client of the Emerge Visitation Center. The White River Junction facility serves families in both Vermont and New Hampshire. He and his ex-wife used the center during their divorce. At the time, he was the non-custodial parent, but he has since retained full custody of his two teenagers.
"It was a stressful period," recalls the Enfield, New Hampshire, resident. "Without Emerge, I wouldn't have been able to see the kids. In a lot of cases when the two parents split, the kids are caught in the middle," Verdine continues. "Without centers like this, they have no opportunity to see the non-custodial parent."
After his experience as a client, Verdine joined Emerge's board of directors; he is currently its president. He says the difference between how New Hampshire and Vermont treat these centers is stark. In New Hampshire, he says, "They've got a lot of commitment and support from the court system, which the state of Vermont does not have."
Indeed, last week Judge Linda Levitt of Vermont District and Family Court suggested to a reporter from The Burlington Free Press that perhaps a visitation center is not needed in Burlington.
But FCC board member Larsen argues that the need for supervised visitation exists. "There are certainly a lot of families who could benefit, but for whatever reason, they're not being referred."
Barbara Rachelson, executive director of the Lund Family Center, agrees there is a need. When the FCC announced its closure, the board speculated in a letter to other visitation programs that Lund might take over some of its case load; FCC served about 10 families each week. Rachelson says that was a miscommunication. The Lund Center does provide supervised visitation services, but only for its existing residential clients. "We currently do not have the capacity to pick up what the Family Connection Center provided," she insists.
But, Rachelson adds, the response to that letter indicates someone needs to pick up FCC's services. "From the 22 phone calls we've gotten already -- yikes," she says.
One solution would be for another agency to adopt the FCC, or at least its mission. The Addison County Parent/Child Advocacy Program in Middlebury, for example, is a program of the nonprofit anti-domestic violence organization Womensafe.
Cassie Isabelle, grants manager for the Department of Children and Families, says linking with another organization is not a bad idea. She emphasizes that these are challenging times for nonprofit organizations, and approaches the closure of the Burlington center as "an opportunity."
"I don't think it means that Burlington will be at a loss," Isabelle says. "I think it means Burlington will be stepping up to the plate to ask, 'How do we better serve the children and families in the community?'"