New Jackson center offers safety during difficult family time

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

One of the most dangerous situations for victims of domestic violence is when the non-custodial parent comes by to visit with or pick up the children.

"That's often when trouble arises," says Janet Gage, domestic relations attorney and referee for Jackson County Friend of the Court.

That's why Gage is happy to take on another title: project director of the new Jackson County Family Visitation Center.

Located in the lower level of the Northlawn Building at 1697 Lansing Ave., the center is a safe and comfortable place for children to spend time with the parent who has left the family home, or for them to meet before leaving for another location.

"There are many families impacted by domestic violence and their children are not safe unless the visits or exchanges are supervised," said Gage, standing in the facility which is stocked with toys and games. "Here, it's safe. You're going to see your children, but that's it. You're not going to see the other parent. You're going to be in the building before that parent gets here, and you're going to be in the building til that parent's gone. And you're going to be under our supervision."

Funding comes from the Federal Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, which awarded Jackson County a three-year $400,000 grant to open the new supervised visitation and exchange center.

Gage said there are just a handful of such centers in the state.

AWARE, Inc., the local domestic violence and sexual assault program, runs the center along with Jackson County Circuit and District Courts, which refer clients to the program.

AWARE Executive Director Rebecca Filip said staff had interviewed women in the shelter, as well as batterers, about what they wanted in such a center.

She said women wanted a safe, monitored place for the non-custodial parent to visit the kids, but where the parents don't have contact.

"The men themselves wanted to be treated with respect and to be able to see their children," she said. "As long as batterers are going to be given visitation with their children, it should be done in a safe manner for both the children and the other partner."

By far, the majority of domestic violence are women, although there are exceptions, Filip said.

Gage, a grandmother of 13, has a keen interest in healthy families.

"Parents should be able to see their kids, and the kids see both of their parents," she said. "The families we see are not together. The parents have either never been married, or they're divorced or separated. And so without the court ordering supervised exchanges because there is conflict, or supervised visits because there's been domestic violence, the kids really wouldn't have the chance to see the other parent safely. That's the goal."

The county has donated the space, which is designed so that the parents never see each other. The visiting parent is scheduled to arrive about 30 minutes before the custodial parent, and must pass through security. Only when the custodial parent has called the security guard to make sure the other parent is there does she or he arrive with the children.

Filip explained that batterers want power and control over their partner, and children are often used as pawns in that process.

"So when the woman leaves and takes the children, he doesn't have control anymore, and that's the most dangerous time," Filip said. "To have a safe place without that control is huge for women."

Published: Mon, Aug 6, 2012

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