Safe Havens, Lacking Funds, Shuts Down

By Beacon Staff

After months of frenetic fundraising and grant writing, the Nurturing Center’s Safe Havens supervised visitation and exchange center is closing, leaving a community and state – already lacking the service – with few options.

“It’s devastating for the community,” Jolie Fish, director of Flathead County Family Court Services, said. “There are so many people out there that don’t get to see their children just because there’s not an agency to facilitate that relationship. Safe Havens is the only place in the valley that we know of – and, I think, one of the only places in the state – that has all the necessary safety features.”

Safe Havens provides court-ordered monitored visits between children and a parent who otherwise may not be allowed to see each other, including families struggling with high-conflict divorce, addiction or abuse. The program started in 2005, when an overwhelmed District Court approached the Nurturing Center’s director Susan Christofferson, asking her to expand the center’s services.

“We had started out just taking a few cases, but the demand increased so we secured a grant to expand the program and provide a better facility,” Christofferson said.

That grant, a $289,798 award from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, funded the program since its inception, but when it expired Aug. 31, the Nurturing Center missed the deadline to renew it.

Since then, the community has donated enough money to keep the program afloat for almost another eight months, as Christofferson scrambled to secure other grant monies. But the grant awards process is often slow – Christoffereson is waiting to hear on 13 grants totaling $84,000 – and the center is again out of money, forcing it to close, at least temporarily, April 15.

Local and state family service professionals know of only two other visitation and exchange centers like Safe Havens in the state – one in Missoula, the other in Bozeman – leaving Montana, they say, woefully short of the needed service. Approximately 57 families with 91 children currently use Safe Haven, some of whom travel from other communities or even out of state for the scarce resource.

There are a handful of other organizations statewide, including one in Kalispell, that offer similar services, Christofferson said, but they charge at least $40 an hour – the actual cost of the service – and have varying security and eligibility requirements. Safe Havens charges are on a subsidized, sliding scale with families paying from $5 to $25 an hour. “Most of our families wouldn’t be able to afford that service,” she said, “and many of these families are already going through a very emotionally and financially stressful time.”

In last year’s Legislature, a bill to create a supervised visitation and exchange monitoring pilot program through the Montana Board of Crime Control died in committee along a partisan vote. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Julie French, D-Scobey, said if reelected, she plans to reintroduce the bill, but possibly under the umbrella of a different department.

“It’s a very important and desperately needed service,” French said, “especially for families where there’s a history of abuse. There’s a lot of people who need this resource and almost nowhere to find it – that’s the problem in a nutshell.”

The court-ordered use of a visitation and exchange center is often associated with volatile problems such as a history of domestic violence, substance abuse, abduction concerns or mental-health issues. But, local family service professionals say the most common use is for families going through high-conflict divorces and, sometimes, the program helps to reintroduce children and parents that have had lengthy separations.

“There’s so many families from all types of different situations that benefit from this,” Christofferson said. “I feel as though we’re holding children hostage to economic factors. It’s unfair and unjust but that’s the unfortunate reality we deal with in all types of situations.”

While she’d like to be up-and-running as soon as possible, Christofferson said she wouldn’t reopen Safe Havens until she’s sure there’s enough money to carry the program through to another grant. With a $5,000 a month operating bill, that amount would probably be around $15,000.

“I don’t want to open on a month-to-month basis because it’s too stressful for the families we serve to constantly be wondering, ‘Will it be open? Will we be able to see our kids?’” she said.

Some federal money will be available in October, but in a worst-case scenario the program could be shut down until October 2009 when the original federal grant again becomes available. “But, that’s not acceptable,” Christofferson said. “I’m going to keep fighting to secure grant monies so we can operate in the interim; that’s too long for the community to go without this service.”