A HIStory OF VIOLENCE


It is the opinion of this blog owner that DV shelters and/or Visitation Centers AND especially CPS workers/Social Services that this case is proof enough that you don’t do enough or anything at all. The CPS workers that I’ve had the “pleasure” of dealing with have been totally useless in protecting my child. Stay tuned because I plan on exposing every last one of you.

Supervised visitation centers: A safe haven for children and mothers amid threats of violence

But many facilities struggle with a lack of state support and declines in private contribution s

For Michael Connolly’s two young sons and their mother, the McLean County Family Visitation Center was a safe haven, a place where the boys could meet their erratic father under the watchful eyes of clinical social workers.

Connolly was prohibited from removing his sons from the facility in Bloomington. Carefully staggered arrival and departure times prevented him from crossing paths with the children’s mother, who secured a protective order against him after he threatened to “cut her open” and commit suicide.

It wasn’t until after a family court judge granted Connolly unsupervised visitation that he abducted Duncan, 9, and Jack, 7, whose bodies were discovered last month in the back seat of their father’s car in rural Putnam County. After the apparent double-homicide, Connolly hanged himself, officials said.

“In this case, the supervised visitation center worked really, really well,” said Alicia Aiken, a professor of family law at DePaul University. “It was a controlled setting that kept everyone safe.”

More than half a dozen centers like the one in Bloomington have sprung up in Illinois during the last decade, drawing rave reviews from attorneys, judges and other experts. They are viewed as one of the most valuable ways to keep victims of domestic violence and their children safe after a divorce or separation.

But many of these facilities do not have adequate resources to meet demand and struggle with a lack of state support and declines in private contributions, officials say. At the same time, federal “Safe Haven” start-up grants that provide crucial funding are phased out over time.

Last fall, a reduction in federal grant money forced the Bloomington center to all but eliminate supervised visits. DuPage County’s center, meanwhile, has a limit of six weekly visits.

And at the non-profit Branch Family Institute, which operates one of Chicago’s three centers, officials wonder how long it can survive. Federal grant money has been trimmed from $75,000 in recent years to $36,500, and funding from the city has remained relatively flat at about $50,000.

“We used to be hanging by a string, but now we’re hanging by a thread,” said Brenda Thompson, the institute’s president.

When such centers are unavailable, judges often place the responsibility for supervising visits with friends of the parents, relatives or other community members who are often untrained and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges and possible dangers, experts say.

Private supervision services are available, but at a cost of up to $150 an hour, they are out of reach for many families.

Some publicly supported centers charge a small fee, such as $5 an hour for parents who use the one in Rock Island County. The three centers in Chicago provide free services to city residents.

Apna Ghar, which means “Our Home” in Hindi and Urdu, is perhaps the oldest center of this kind in the state. Launched in 1991, it occupies space on two floors of an old brick building in Uptown and serves about 45 families at any given time.

The custodial parent usually arrives 15 minutes before a visit begins, remaining in a locked waiting room on the sixth floor while a staff member escorts the child to the ninth floor. The non-custodial parent unites with the child there in a comfortable room furnished with couches, toys and a television.

The visits, typically one hour a week, are supervised by a clinical social worker trained in domestic violence.

When the visit is over, the non-custodial parent remains on the ninth floor for 15 minutes, allowing the custodial parent and child time to leave the building. The non-custodial parent is escorted out and helped with any safety precautions, said Bob Gallenbach, a supervisor.

“We have an alarm, but we’ve never had to use it,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, a young mother was in the waiting room. She said she filed for divorce last fall when the abusive behavior of her alcoholic husband caused her to fear for their child’s safety. The father was granted unsupervised visitation until his wife proved to a judge that he was getting drunk during visits with the child, said his wife, who asked not to be identified.

The supervised visits, begun a few months ago at Apna Ghar, made a huge difference, the woman said. “I know my child will come back to me in one piece.”

Under Illinois law, the non-custodial parent almost always retains visitation rights, forcing interactions that can pose grave risks in cases of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.

In December 2007, Herbert Poleate Jr., fatally shot his estranged wife during an exchange of their children in the parking lot of an automotive store in south suburban Lansing. The Illinois Department of Corrections employee then turned the gun on himself.

And as the Michael Connolly case underscores, non-custodial parents can use visitation as a chance to flee with the children.

In January, the judge granted Connolly alternate weekend and Wednesday visits, with pickups and drop-offs at a police station. He never returned with his two boys after a March 8 exchange, prompting authorities to launch a nationwide manhunt that ended when the bodies were found three weeks later.

When judges in family and domestic violence courts order supervision during visitations and exchanges, it’s an attempt to prevent this very thing from happening, experts say.

Moshe Jacobius, presiding judge in Cook County Court’s Domestic Relations Division, said the supervised visitation centers have been “a tremendous help.”

Many centers were opened with the help of the federal grants. Between 2002 and 2008, more than $3.5 million was awarded to them throughout Illinois. The cutoff point for such money varies from center to center. Nationally, federal funding for the program increased slightly, officials say.

Chicago’s three centers, which get an additional $135,000 in combined financial assistance from the city each year, have served as one of the federal program’s four national demonstration sites.

A new three-year Safe Haven award for $395,000 will help fund a supervised visitation center in Joliet. But as the federal start-up grants are trimmed, officials say the centers have had a hard time finding other financial support.

In 2000, the Illinois General Assembly passed a measure permitting counties to create fees for court filings to help fund the centers. DuPage County seized the opportunity, charging an $8 filing fee. So did McLean County, but so far Cook County hasn’t taken that step.

“In these economic times, it’s been very hard,” said Leslie Landis, manager of Chicago’s domestic-violence project who distributes funds to the city’s centers. “We’re trying to sustain the centers when they really need to grow.”

Meanwhile, officials at Chicago’s centers say the visits they oversee for hundreds of parents each year generally last no longer than eight or nine months. They usually end when a judge grants the non-custodial parent unsupervised visitation.

Experts emphasize that months of supervised visits do not guarantee that unsupervised meetings will be safe, as the Connolly case illustrates.

“A lot of judges see time passing as evidence that the problem is cured,” said Denice Markham, executive director of Life Span Center for Legal Services and Advocacy in Chicago, which represents victims of domestic violence. “Just because the parent complied in a controlled setting doesn’t mean it’s safe to grant unsupervised visitation.”

mtwohey@tribune. com

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