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Funding shortage hobbles Pinellas' CASA visitation center

Thirteen years ago, judges, parents rights advocates and those in domestic violence prevention came together to launch Pinellas County's first visitation center.

The idea was simple — create a neutral and safe place for supervised visitation between parents and kids, many of them involved in situations of domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness.

Now the center, like many social service programs in this economic downturn, is struggling.

Its primary source of funding, a $100,000 grant from Pinellas County that made up about half of its annual budget, was cut. Donations have dried up, and many of the smaller grants have gone away.

The center, which once was open three days a week, is now open only on Saturdays. And parents who once could see their children for two to three hours at a time are only allotted 90 minutes now. They also might have to start paying for visits.

Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse, estimates it will take $10,000 a month to keep the center open from now on. That money pays for eight trained visitation supervisors, security and other expenses.

Right now, Osmundson has $40,000 in the bank — enough for the next four months. After that is anyone's guess, she said.

"It's very scary to think about it going away," said Kris Nowland, CASA's director of youth education and support services.

The visitation center is housed in an undisclosed location in Pinellas Park. The building's address is shielded from the public in an effort to protect the 60 or so families who use it each month.

Officials have taken pains to make the place comfortable for the parents and the kids.

There's a playground, a small gymnasium, a craft room and a kitchen.

There also are obvious signs of security. Parents must go through a metal detector. Visitation supervisors stay close, and an off-duty police officer is on site.

The center oversees about 1,225 visitations a year, Osmundson said. About 65 percent of the cases are referred to the center because of domestic violence. The rest are mental health and substance abuse cases.

Judges who oversee these types of cases say the visitation center has become essential. It gives parents who still have parental rights a way to see their children, said Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, a Family Court judge in Pinellas County.

And it can help keep the peace in families that are already in tough situations. Parents using the center don't have to directly interact with each other, and the visits are coordinated by staff members.

"It fills a really big niche in the dependency court system," Sullivan said. "There's more situations than you can imagine that need it."

Melissa Garland is one of those cases. Garland has a permanent injunction against her ex-husband. After unsuccessful visitation attempts on her own, the court system referred Garland to CASA's facility.

"It's meant a lot," said Garland, who believes that despite her problems with her ex, it's important for her two daughters to have the chance at a relationship with their father.

The 28-year-old said she's terrified of the consequences of the visitation center closing.

"It would mean having to go back to court," she said. "It's already emotional. It would be a huge financial trauma to me also."

Osmundson says she's confident the community will step up to fund the center.

She has already put out a call to local law enforcement agencies to see whether they will contribute. Late last week, she got a $10,000 check from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"I'm committed to this," Osmundson said. "We're just going to keep it open month to month."

Reach Kameel Stanley at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

fast facts

For more information about CASA or to donate to the visitation center, call (727) 895-4912. For information about domestic violence, call the state's toll-free hotline at 1-800-500-1119.

Funding shortage hobbles Pinellas' CASA visitation center 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 7:54pm]

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