When parents are in conflict, kids can end up stressed. But a center in Fayetteville provides a safe place for parents and children to interact.
By Holly West
Sharing custody of a child can be contentious, especially when parents have a history of family violence. And finding a safe place for child visitation can be a challenge.
A center in Cumberland County has been providing services to help take that challenge out of child exchanges and visitations since 2004. Safe Havens Supervised Visitation Center provides homey rooms with murals painted on the walls where kids can be safe with a sometimes violent parent.
“We try to make it as comfortable as possible,” said Safe Havens director Debbie Norman.
But lack of funding will force the center to close soon, leaving 130 local families in crisis with few options for supervised visitations and exchanges.
Safe Havens Supervised Visitation Center, located at 304 Mason St. in Fayetteville, will close its doors on Aug. 31.
Clients come from Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee and Johnston counties. There are 15 other visitation and exchange centers in North Carolina, but Safe Havens is the only facility in these five counties.
A neutral environment
Local family court officials pushed to create Safe Havens as a response to problems with child custody cases.
Judge Beth Keever, who was instrumental in establishing the center in October 2004, said child exchanges and visits often turn into fights between parents.
“There was a need for a third-party evaluation for the visits that occurred,” she said.
Keever said most of the participants in the Safe Havens program are ordered by the court to be there, but families can also choose to use the facility for visits. She said the court might order parents to use the program in situations involving domestic violence or when one parent has not had contact with the child for a significant period of time.
Norman said Safe Havens is also helpful to parents with mental illnesses who can better handle visitation in a controlled environment.
“The child needs that contact with the parent,” she said. “But they couldn’t do it for a weekend or even unsupervised because you never know what might happen.”
Family court administrator Sanya Eller said this program makes it easier for judges to rule on custody issues because they don’t have to rely on parent testimony about dropping off kids or picking them up.
“You have issues like, ‘He wasn’t there so I left,’ or, ‘She wasn’t there so I left,’” she said. “And [they have] nothing to prove this because they are anywhere – sometimes it’s on a highway, sometimes it’s at McDonalds.”
At Safe Haven, exchanges and visitations are supervised by both security cameras and an in-room monitor.
“They have a neutral party basically saying this is what happened, just the facts,” Eller said. “It makes it easier for the court to make decisions, it makes it easier for the parents and, most of all, it’s friendlier on this child.”
To further diffuse conflict, parents have no contact with each other during exchanges or visitations. The center has two entrances with separate parking lots that are accessed from different streets. It can feel like walking into a different facility from either entrance.
Norman said this strategy takes away the stress kids often feel when both parents are in the same room.
“Whether they see anything or not, they’re going to feel the tension between their parents,” she said.
The facility, which is housed in a rental home, includes three kid-friendly visitation rooms, a kitchen and a playground.
Norman said kids and parents use Safe Havens like it’s their own home, not a visitation center.
“We have one mom in particular that brings meals,” she said. “She cooks something and brings it. So they have that time together that they wouldn’t normally have.”
Norman said the center has been supported since its opening by grants from the Governor’s Crime Commission. The grants were reduced last year; this year the center received no funding at all.
Though the facility collects fees for its services, Norman said they don’t bring in enough to pay for the center’s annual costs of approximately $150,000.
With only about a month before Safe Havens will have to close, Eller said everyone at the center has been looking for ways to keep some of its services available.
“We’re all kind of beating the bushes down to ask for help,” she said. “We’re asking some outside agencies if they could possibly come in at least to do the supervised visitation.”
Thus far, they haven’t been successful in finding help.
Norman said the center has already cut a lot of costs so it can stay open as long as possible. Last year, it reduced the number of days per week it operates from seven to five.
It no longer pays monitors, but uses the services of unpaid interns from local universities.
The center also stopped staffing case managers. Norman said all 130 cases are now managed by herself and one courthouse employee.
In another effort to save money, there is now a visitation limit of two hours per week.
Norman said the changes have come at a price to clients.
“We had one case that was coming three days a week for two hours,” she said, choking back tears. As a result of cutbacks, the mother’s visits were cut from three times to once a week.
“That was [the mom’s] time to get to see her daughter.”
When the center closes, court-ordered supervised exchanges or visitations will have to be conducted at police or sheriff’s offices.
“We’ll have to just go back kind of to the way it was before,” she said. “What child wants to be standing in a police station or standing in the sheriff’s department lobby because mommy and daddy can’t get along?”