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For sake of harmony and lives, keep Visitation Center funded

Budget cuts can be painful. They can also have potentially deadly consequences. Consider the case of the Visitation Center.

It's an unimpressive name for a place where so much is on the line. The Pinellas Park center that serves all of Pinellas County is a sort of demilitarized zone where separated or divorced parents can visit their children on neutral ground under court-ordered supervision.

The center exists to protect children, parents and the public from the sort of domestic violence that can explode in the overheated atmosphere of divorce and custody battles.

But the Visitation Center is on life support, with only enough money for minimal operations for six more months. If it closes, where will these potentially explosive visits occur?

Perhaps at the mall where you are shopping. Or at the McDonald's where your family is eating. Places with no metal detector, no police officer standing by, and no rules to ensure that the chance of violence is minimized.

Linda Osmundson is the longtime executive director of CASA, or Community Action Stops Abuse, which has operated the Visitation Center for 13 years. She thinks it is essential to protect the safety of the public and the children caught in a tug of war between parents. But she can't keep the center open without cash.

"There's kind of an assumption that we're going to be okay," she said last week. "But it's down to this: We're not going to be okay unless the community funds us."

Until 2009, Pinellas County government provided much of the Visitation Center's funding. But this year county commissioners cut their social action funding and spent much of what was left on homeless initiatives. So the Visitation Center lost its $100,000 county allocation — almost half of its annual budget of $235,000. Grants and donations dried up this year, too.

Osmundson scored a $40,000 federal grant, but that was all she had for 2009-2010. She wrote letters to Pinellas police agencies, begging for money. Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats sent $10,000. The Clearwater and Largo police departments said they would try to provide about $5,000 each. Other departments haven't made offers; the St. Petersburg Police Department didn't even respond to the letter.

The search for funding, never easy, has been increasingly tough the last three years, so Osmundson has slashed costs. CASA once had three visitation centers in Pinellas; now there is only one. That center previously operated on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays, and parents could visit their children for up to three hours at a time. Now, the center is open only on Saturdays and visits are limited to 90 minutes. Parents also must pay for the visits on a sliding scale ranging from $5 to $50, but the fees cover only 5 to 10 percent of costs.

Osmundson worries about the safety and welfare of children if the center must close. It supervises about 1,225 visits a year. Judges send people to the center when they believe visits between a child and noncustodial parent should be supervised because of domestic violence or drug, alcohol or mental health problems. The center provides a child-friendly setting, arranges the visits and provides a trained supervisor to observe every visit. The supervisor and an off-duty police officer make sure the visiting parent is sober and unarmed and doesn't make inappropriate promises or ask probing questions like "Where is Mommy living now?" Strict scheduling ensures that the custodial and noncustodial parents don't see or speak to each other.

Years ago, before there was a Visitation Center, courts sometimes denied visitation altogether in such cases. Or judges put the noncustodial parent's own parents in charge of supervising the visit — hardly a satisfactory solution — or ordered that visits take place in police station lobbies or public places. Former Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Bonnie Newton worked to create the Pinellas Visitation Center because she was anxious about scheduling so many visits at McDonald's.

Headlines about kidnappings and murders of children and estranged spouses tell the story of why places like the Visitation Center are necessary. Pinellas governments and residents need to step up and make sure the Pinellas center gets the money it needs to fill the need.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials of the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.

fast facts

To get information about CASA or donate to the Visitation Center, call (727) 895-4912. For information about domestic violence, contact the state's hotline at 1-800-500-1119.

For sake of harmony and lives, keep Visitation Center funded 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 4:30am]

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