CASA, the St. Petersburg-based program that comes to the aid of domestic violence victims, has itself been rescued. This time last year, CASA's Visitation Center was on life support, with only enough money to operate a few more months. Today, the Visitation Center is safe for two more years, thanks to help from local philanthropists, a community group and four Pinellas County law enforcement agencies. Their contributions could save lives.
The Visitation Center provides a safe zone for visits between children and their noncustodial parents when there is potential danger to the child because the parent has been abusive or has mental health or substance abuse problems. Visiting parents are checked for weapons and drugs, a trained staff member observes the visit, and an off-duty police officer is present.
The center also steps in when it is a bad idea for custodial and noncustodial parents to meet as they drop off or pick up their children for visitation. The center handles the exchange, reducing the potential for violent confrontations.
Before there was a Visitation Center, judges who felt there was potential for danger to the child or the custodial parent would require visitation in a public place like the mall or McDonald's. But that put the public at risk, so 14 years ago CASA opened Pinellas' first Visitation Center.
Pinellas County government provided much of the funding, and grants and donations filled out the rest of the budget. But in 2009, with tax revenue plummeting, Pinellas County chose to eliminate its annual $100,000 appropriation. The Visitation Center slashed staff by half, instituted furloughs and froze salaries, reduced its three days of monitored visitations each week to one day, and cut the length of visits from three hours to 1.5 hours.
But in late 2009, CASA executive director Linda Osmundson told the St. Petersburg Times the Visitation Center would be out of money within six months and would have to close. She feared for the safety of children and the public when visits were no longer in a controlled setting. Violence has erupted during visitations here and elsewhere. Two years ago a Pinellas teen was stabbed by his noncustodial mother during court-ordered visitation at a local psychologist's office.
But the story of the Visitation Center's money troubles brought out some heroes, according to CASA development director Tuesdi Dyer. Former Tech Data CEO Steve Raymund and his wife, Sonia, decided to match the proceeds from last December's CASA Peace Breakfast — a donation of $233,000. The Boys & Girls Club of Pinellas Park agreed to provide a location for the Visitation Center, which had lost its previous location, for its Saturday and Sunday visitations.
And four law enforcement agencies came up with donations. The St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park police departments and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office gave $10,000 each. Largo police provided $5,000. Police agencies have endured budget cuts themselves, so the donations indicate the importance of the Visitation Center to law enforcement.
"The victim of domestic violence is at risk every time there is a pickup or dropoff" of a child, St. Petersburg City Council member Jim Kennedy said this month as the council approved the $10,000 donation in police forfeiture funds. "These are the police calls that can be the most dangerous and deadly."
Council member Steve Kornell, a school social worker, said it is startling how many young victims of domestic violence become juvenile offenders. Keeping the Visitation Center open is a preventive act, he said.
CASA has shouldered a big burden in operating Pinellas' only visitation center and doing so without county government support. But the community has proven it will rally to support that important cause, even in hard times.