New Hampshire Legal Assistance

Helping to balance the scales of justice for everyone since 1971.

NHLA Testimony on HB 565: Supervised visitation centers

Posted Jan 30, 2019

NHLA Domestic Violence Advocacy Project Director Erin Jasina was among the many domestic violence experts who testified yesterday on the importance of equal access to supervised visitation centers. Here's what she told the House Children and Family Law Committee: 

 

Dear Chairman Long and Fellow Representatives:

New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) submits this written testimony in support of HB 565.  NHLA is a statewide non-profit law firm.  Our attorneys and paralegals represent low-income and elderly clients in civil cases involving urgent, basic needs, including safety from domestic violence and stalking. NHLA’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Project (DVAP) provides free legal advice and representation to low-income survivors of domestic violence in protective order cases under RSA 173-B, and RSA 633:3-a, and domestic violence-related family law litigation including divorce and parental rights and responsibilities.

The need for this legal work is vast; NHLA can only help a small fraction of the victims who request our assistance.  We therefore target our limited resources at the high lethality cases in which the victim’s safety is at greatest risk based on the history of abuse. 

Last year, NHLA’s DVAP assisted close to 300 domestic violence survivors involved in our family courts.  Based on NHLA’s considerable experience litigating difficult family law cases involving severe domestic violence, NHLA supports HB 565.

HB 565 directs New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services to issue a request for proposals to establish a supervised visitation center in each county.  In December 2017, New Hampshire saw two of its supervised visitation centers, the Nashua Visitation Center and All Our Children in Jaffrey, forced to close their doors due to loss of funding.  At the time of closure, the two centers were serving approximately 100 families.  Of those 100 families, 95% of them involved domestic violence.  It is unknown what happened to those families affected.  Parenting time for some may have been suspended indefinitely due to the high lethality nature of the case.  Others may have moved to unsupervised or less restricted parenting time in the absence of a safe visitation center, putting the child and the other parent at considerable risk of harm.  What we do know is that the neither of these options account for the best interest of the child.

There remain three visitation centers in our State that provide safe and secure supervised visitation through the use of metal detectors and on-site law enforcement.  Those centers are: the Strafford County Supervised Visitation Center in Dover, which receives federal funding that will expire at the end of September; the Merrimack County Supervised Visitation Center in Boscawen, which receives county funding; and the Lebanon Visitation Center.  This center is privately operated by Waypoint, and their funding is also at risk.   

Recognizing that three centers are simply not enough to account for the growing and urgent need for safe supervised visitation centers in New Hampshire, NHLA over the past year has convened a group of key community agencies and stakeholders.  Representatives from the Circuit Court, state legislature, supervised visitation centers, crisis services, Waypoint, and other social services agencies, came together to address this problem.  Across bipartisan lines we all came to the same conclusion: New Hampshire needs better access to supervised visitation centers to ensure the safety of vulnerable parents and children.

This funding would allow for each county to have a supervised visitation center.  Centers selected to receive funding must abide by and comply with the Guiding Principles for Safe Havens established by the United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women.  The funded centers will be members of the New Hampshire Family Visitation and Access Cooperative, which will perform peer reviews and monitoring of each center to ensure compliance.  Those centers found not to be in compliance, will be at risk of losing funding.

It is the policy of this state to support frequent and continuing contact between each child and both parents because children do best when both parents have a stable and meaningful involvement in their lives.  It is also the policy of this state to consider the best interest of the child and the safety of the parents when determining when and how contact should occur.  Too often we see these policies at odds or at the expense of the other. 

Sadly, we have seen what happens when parents’ rights are prioritized over the safety of children.  In 2018, the state paid a settlement of $6.75 million to the grandparents of two girls, aged 4 and eighteen months, that were sexually abused during what was supposed to be supervised visitation.  Best practices for safe supervised visitation were not implemented, and the results are devastating and irreversible for those girls and that family.  Had a center been available, that tragedy may have been avoided.

Supervised visitation centers, and this funding, seek to implement our state’s policy while also prioritizing the safety and protection of children and vulnerable parents.  Visitation centers allow parents the opportunity to nurture and grow in their relationship with their children, but also ensure that those relationships are developing in a safe and positive environment. 

For all these reasons, NHLA supports HB 565 and respectfully requests that this committee vote Ought to Pass.

Sincerely,

 

 

 

Erin Jasina

Domestic Violence Advocacy Project Director New Hampshire Legal Assistance