Family Connection Center closes for lack of funding

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(Host) A Chittenden County organization that supervises court ordered visits between children and non-custodial parents has closed its doors. The Family Connection Center hopes to reopen once it finds a new source of funding. In the meantime, the courts have lost one way to make sure some children can safely visit a parent.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) More than 90% of supervised parent-child visits that take place at the Family Connection Center are the result of orders from Family Court. Many involve divorce cases where there’s a record of violence, or relief from domestic abuse orders.

The court uses the center to make sure a child can still spend time with a parent without putting that child at risk. The Family Connection Center provides trained monitors and off duty police officers to oversee the visits between non-custodial parents and their children. Because the parent may live in a situation that wouldn’t be healthy for a child to visit, the center rents space in downtown Burlington where the visits take place.

Chittenden County Family Court Judge Linda Levitt says the center is an important last resort when courts can’t find a relative or another neutral party to supervise visits. It’s not something courts everywhere have access to.

(Levitt) “In fact, the Burlington area felt very lucky in having a resource like this.”

(Zind) (Zind) After five years in operation, the Family Connection Center closed its doors in Burlington earlier this month. Federal funding used to operate the program ran out. The center’s budget is about $150,000 a year.

Anne Marie Roth is the executive director of the Family Connection Center. Roth says the center has already received some new funding from the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services and expects to receive additional federal grant money that will allow it to continue to operate.

She says it’s been difficult to raise money to run the center because the service is still a relatively new concept. She says some people don’t believe in what the center does – they ask why a parent with a history of violence or drug abuse should be allowed to see their children.

(Roth) “That’s a good question and that is one of the most common arguments that we hear. Kids for whom one parent is missing tend to have more difficulty in school. They tend to have more involvement with drugs and alcohol themselves. One of the great risks if a child is kept from knowing a parent is that the child will idealize that parent.”

(Zind) Roth says the Family Connection Center serves over one hundred children annually, mostly from Chittenden County. Linda Levitt says without the center, her court’s work will be harder.

(Levitt) “No question about it. It will put us in a bind. We were just discussing that very question – what will we do in those cases where there is no other supervised environment for the child to have contact with the parent? Does it mean that we have no contact between that child and the parent? I’m afraid that, in fact, may be the outcome.”

(Zind) The Family Connection Center isn’t the only program in the state that offers supervised family visits. Similar programs currently operate in a number of other Vermont counties.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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