Safe Havens: A Monroe County Community Collaboration
Written by: Jennifer Sullivan, Alternatives for Battered Women
Together with Core Collaborative Partners, including Alternatives for Battered Women, SPCC’s Supervised Visitation Program recently received funding from The Office of Violence Against Women. The Safe Havens program affords an opportunity for communities around the country to provide supervised visitation and safe exchange of children in situations involving domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse, sexual assault, or stalking. Throughout the year, representatives from the court system, county human services, the professional domestic violence community, and the visitation center attend trainings and collaborative workshops with other grant sites around the country. The last training was in Reno, Nevada in June, 2013. SPCC asked Jennifer Sullivan to share some thoughts about her experience as a collaborative partner.
After returning from a recent Safe Havens conference, I began reflecting on what this program really means to our community. One example immediately came to mind. Last year a mother came into Alternatives for Battered Women’s (ABW) Court Advocate Program seeking protection for her and her four year old child. The physical and emotional abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband increased in intensity throughout their years together. This mother found the strength to leave, after realizing the impact the abuse was having on her young child. The first thing ABW helped mom with was safety planning. We do this, because we know the facts: 75% of women that are murdered by their abusive partner are killed after the victim decides to end the relationship (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1988). Through ABW’s assistance, the court granted an Order of Protection, and gave dad three unsupervised visits per week with his daughter. The visits were to be ‘as agreed upon’ instead of a set visitation schedule created by the court. This required the mother and father to negotiate the details, despite the fact that their relationship was conflictual and dangerous. After court, mom and dad tried to decide on a plan for visits, and while conversations between them always started off about their child, they quickly became abusive. Dad used these legitimate and necessary conversations as an opportunity to threaten and harass his ex-wife, continuing the cycle of abuse.
After weeks of hostile conversations between mom and dad, a visitation arrangement was settled on, and the young child began to visit with her dad a few times per week. While mom was still anxious about safety, she hoped this arrangement was a step toward growth and healing for her child. After a few visits, dad began asking his daughter seemingly innocent questions about what she had been doing and where she had been spending time. Innocently, the child answered her dad’s questions; what time she got picked up from pre-school, and her favorite fast food restaurants. She told her dad about her mom working at nights, and what park she loved going to.
A few days later, mom and her daughter stopped by the grocery store a block away from their house, on their way home from pre-school. When they returned to their car, mom found it unlocked with a note rested on the driver’s seat that said,
“I will find you. No matter what”.
Now, this mother recognized the importance of her child feeling connected with her dad. But mom started to wonder if she would ever be safe. It was clear to this mom that her daughter was being manipulated to share information during visits; seemingly innocent information that could give clues to their whereabouts and routine, resulting in serious danger. Increasingly frightened, mom began to wonder if her child was safe during visits.
With ABW’s support, mom decided to return to court and asked that visits between her daughter and ex-husband be supervised by a professional to keep everyone safe. Because the daughter had never been directly, physically abused by her father however, the court allowed for the father to continue unsupervised visits, and suggested that exchanges occur at the mother’s home while dad stayed in his vehicle. At the first visit following this court decision, dad went right up to mom’s front door, instead of waiting in his car. When the mother told him he was not supposed to do this, dad pushed her up against the door and began to strangle her. The four year old child stood right next to mom as this happened, yelling at her dad to stop.
Sadly, for children and adult victims of domestic violence, this type of visitation experience is not unusual. While courts and systems truly want to keep everyone safe, a lack of awareness, training, and community resources mean that the cycle of domestic violence can occur for years after the intimate relationship ends.
During my years with ABW’s Court Advocacy Program, I have worked with many victims of domestic violence. They face numerous and complex obstacles; even more when there are children involved. There is a delicate balance between providing safety and accommodating visitation so that a healthy parent-child relationship can be maintained or developed with both parents. While it is important for children to have positive relationships with each of their parents, we need to ensure that all individuals involved are kept free from physical and emotional harm. Too often, Orders of Protection are violated during visits or exchanges and parents experiencing domestic violence situations are forced to interact. If the safety of a family is compromised to the point where an Order of Protection is warranted, then it often makes sense that safe, supervised visits and exchanges should also be arranged.
Luckily, Monroe County has invested in a program to help these families. The Safe Havens Grant is funded through the Office of Violence Against Women, and services became available for families earlier this year. This money is granted to community collaborations that work together to support children and adult victims of domestic violence that participate in visitation with their other parent. SPCC is the visitation program for Monroe County under the Safe Havens Grant, and has visitation specialists trained specifically to provide safety, nurturing and support to these children and adult victims. Together with their collaboration partners, Judge Dandrea Ruhlmann from the court system, Monroe County Department of Human Services, and ABW, SPCC is able to work with 75 families every year. These are 75 families that wouldn’t have access to safe visits otherwise.
I have spent the last few years as a core collaborative partner in Monroe County’s Safe Haven’s Grant. As the domestic violence specialist with Safe Havens, it is my role to make sure there are no gaps in safety at the visitation center. I represent and give voice to adult victims of domestic violence when policies and procedures are created and when safety decisions are made. As the collaborative team developed the Safe Haven’s program, I spent hours walking through the Visitation Center and leafing through the policies and procedures manual to proactively anticipate and address any safety concerns. My role with Alternatives for Battered Women and my collaboration in this grant allows me to refer adult victims directly to an individual professional at SPCC who can help support and guide them. Intensive training, continual program improvement efforts, and close collaboration with community partners allow us to support healthier relationships while keeping families safe. I am proud of the hard work we have done to shape this program, and I am confident that the safety provided to families at this center is of the highest quality and should be a model for others.
For further information regarding Alternatives for Battered Women, please visit their website at: http://www.abwrochester.org/, or call their confidential Hotline at (585) 232-7353 or TTY (585) 232-1741 (24 hours a day).