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Safe place for children, victims (04/14/2014)
By Chris Rogers

     Photo by Chris Rogers

. Ahniya Morgan (left) and Gabriella Putz (right) color while waiting for their parents to get off work at the Winona Family and Children's Center (FCC), where they are staff members. Starting this summer the center will host a new Winona County program that offers free, safe child visitation and exchange services for families with histories of domestic abuse.

For many divorcees and separated couples, dropping children off for a visit with the other parent can be a tense experience when the conflict between mom and dad threatens to bubble up. For battered mothers, exchanging children with abusive partners poses a risk for more than just steely looks or heated words. Violence, harassment, and stalking often continue or even worsen after couples part ways, and custody exchanges and child visitations are a common venue for ongoing abuse, according to federal officials and international experts.

"Research has shown [that post separation] is one of the most lethal times in a relationship," explained Kiley Liming, the coordinator of a new, free Winona County program that gives parents a place to visit or exchange children without the potential for abusive run-ins. The grant-funded program, called Safe Havens, is expected to open its doors in July.

Liming and her staff will be challenged to balance the need to protect children's and parents' safety while creating a comfortable environment that allows offending parents to develop positive relationships with their children. The unique facilities at the Winona Family and Children's Center (FCC), which is hosting Safe Havens, will help. Separate parking lots and entrances for offending parents and victims will eliminate the chance for confrontations; staggered arrival and departure times will keep offending parents from stalking victims on their way to and from the program; and visitation monitors and, in some rooms, two-way mirrors will help ensure that children are safe during visits and not being used as a "weapon" against victims. The playgrounds, toys, and homey visitation rooms are intended to help parents visiting with their children at the center feel more comfortable.

Post separation is a high risk period for victims, "and for both parents it's a change," Liming said. "But we want it to be a change for the better, so that these children can form healthy relationships with the offending parents." She added, "We want to make sure that the families feel comfortable and welcome in here."

The Winona Family and Children's Center (FCC) hosts court-ordered, fee-for-service supervised visitations for Winona County, but many local mothers who have recently escaped violent relationships deliver their children for visits with battering fathers in the police station parking lot or another public parking lot.

Exchanging children in a public spaces helps minimize the risk of serious physical violence, but there are more insidious ways that abusers try to regain control over the victims after separation. Often children are used as a lever in that attempt, Liming explained. Batterers may shower children with gifts and tell them not to listen to the other parent in an attempt to undermine the victims' parenting ability and/or to win custody of the child. Batterers may threaten their victims, saying that "they'll never be able to see their children again" if they stay separated, Liming said.

Winona County won a three-year-long $388,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women to fund Safe Havens in October 2012 and, as required by the grant, spent the first 12 months coordinating with community partners, including the Women's Resource Center, and planning the program.

Safe Haven is free and open to all Winona County families with a qualifying history of abuse. No court-order is necessary. The program is expected to start in July. To apply, families may seek referrals from community agencies they already visit, including Winona Health, Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center, and the Women's Resource Center, or they may call FCC at 507-453-9563 and ask for Safe Haven staff.

Volunteers cut down paperwork, boost child safety

The Winona County Citizen Review Panel, a volunteer group who aids county child abuse prevention efforts in the area, recently developed a new tool to help better assess whether parents in court-ordered supervised visitation programs are interacting appropriately with their children.

Monitoring visits between parents who judges have determined may pose a risk to their children is another service FCC and Winona County provide. Monitors supervising those visits in the past took exhaustive notes on the visits.

"We had long, long narratives that [child protection workers] would have to go through and then try to pull out what pieces of it were important to the child protection case," explained Winona County Community Services Supervisor Sharon Summers.

Volunteering several hours of their time each month, the Citizen Review Panel members condensed "massive" documents containing guidelines for evaluating when parents are ready to move out of supervised visits or when there may be problems, and condensed them into a one-page checklist. Summers said the streamlined checklist has "overwhelming" value. 


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