Sunflower Bridge Child program to run out of funds this weekend

By Katherine Wartell

There is a center in Manhattan that you might not even know exists that, in most cases, provides supervised visitation between parents who have committed domestic violence and their children.

And its future in the community is bleak, unless more funding can be found.

The employees who work there know it is hard to garner sympathy for batterers, but for them, it’s the safety of the children that is their concern.

The Sunflower Bridge Child and Exchange Visitation Center is a Sunflower CASA Project, Inc. service that provides supervised visitation and exchanges between non-custodial and custodial parents and their children in a neutral setting. 

The program has been available since 2000 and has served 156 families in the Riley, Pottawatomie, Clay and Geary counties. In 2011, the program provided services for 40 families, with 159 visits and 130 exchanges conducted.

Bria Taddiken-Williams, CEVC program coordinator, said that in the past 18 months, 100 percent of the families involved with the center have domestic violence identified somewhere within the family and that a protection from abuse order is usually what precipitates everything.

The center works simply: The custodial parent drops their child off at the Sunflower CASA offices, whose location is given to the parents prior to the first meeting, 15 minutes before the visitation or exchange is scheduled. The child will then stay in the care of the observer, whose job duties include documenting the visit and looking out for inappropriate behavior, while a security officer watches the parking lot to ensure that the non-custodial parent does not arrive early and come into contact with the custodial parent, who more likely than not has a protection order filed.

Once the other parent arrives, the security officer will escort the non-custodial parent into the center and look out for signs of drug or alcohol use, though Taddiken-Williams said most parents know better than to come to the center after using.

The visits take place in a mock living room, complete with couches and toys with which the children can play. The observer and security officer stay in the room for the entire visit.

Once the visit is completed, the security officer will then escort the non-custodial parent to his or her car and ensure that he or she leaves the premises before the custodial parent arrives to pick the children up.

The role of the security officer is always filled by someone with law enforcement training. Security Officer Laura Alexander said she’s been working with the center for three years.

Alexander also works at the Riley County Courthouse where she oversees CINC, or child-in-need-of-care, cases and works with adults who have violated the terms of their protection from abuse orders.

She said the center is important for women who file protection from abuse orders and their children and that they assign more accountability to the non-custodial parent.

“We’re very fortunate because we have professionals on the staff,” she said. “We all get it. We get the domestic violence, and we get the impact on children.”

Taddiken-Williams said most children who come to the center are grade school or younger. “They are very vulnerable children,” she said, which is why, she said, employees have little patience for non-custodial parents trying to use their children to get back at their estranged spouses or partners, though she said they try to stress to the parents that they are a neutral party and make recommendations to the courts based upon factual observations.

Jayme Morris-Hardeman, executive director of the Sunflower CASA Project, said that non-custodial parents are not allowed to take pictures, bring gifts, leave messages or whisper with their children.

She said the rules are in place to discourage batterers from manipulating their children, who she said are their number one priority.

But, funding for the center is tenuous, and Alexander said that courts have already stopped ordering the service, because they know it’s not as available as in the past, putting, she said, more women and children in danger. 

In December 2010, the center was awarded with the Safe Havens grant, a federal program that grants funds to states to open new CEVCs or expand existing ones. After that grant, Morris-Hardeman said, their budget was approximately $75,000 per year, which allowed them to have a full-time coordinator, split between three people, and provide 20 to 25 hours of service per week. 

Prior to the grant, Morris-Hardeman said that the center operated on $40,000 per year, with only a half-time coordinator and 10 hours of service provided each week. There was also a wait-list for all of 2010 and clients were unable to have the service hours they requested with each family limited to one-hour visits per week, though judges could have allowed three to four hours a week.

The grant eliminated the wait-list and allowed for visits up to three hours, but Kansas did not secure federal funding for Safe Havens in 2012.

Morris-Hardeman said staff and service time had to once again be reduced, while the wait-list was re-introduced.

She said the center will be able to use the remainder of their Safe Havens grant fund through Saturday, but she has concerns for the 2013 fiscal year without the funding and with uncertain funding from other avenues.

Morris-Hardeman said that, traditionally, funding for Sunflower Bridge came from five sources: competitive state CEVC grant through the Attorney General’s Office, which are funded with a portion of docket fees from domestic cases, Federal State Access and Visitation Program grant funds through the Governor’s Grants Office on a formula basis, United Way of Riley County, private fund-raising and client fees. 

She said that in the fiscal year 2012, the center lost 45 percent of their state CEVC grant, or $10,000 of their previous $24,500 award, due in large part to having the Safe Havens grant and they are unsure how much they will be able to secure in the 2013 year. Morris-Hardeman said their SAVP grant has provided a fairly stable $7,000 per year and United Way has provided $5,000 for the past few years.

Each supervised visitation is $65 but most families are only paying the minimum of $7 for a visit or $4 for an exchange, so Morris-Hardeman said program fees generate around $2,000 per year. She said the remainder of their funds come from special events and fund-raising by Sunflower CASA Project board, staff, and volunteers. 

She also said they plan to apply for a small amount of funding from UW of Geary County for 2013, as their client base has grown significantly in Geary County in the past 5 years, with 26 percent of their clients coming from Geary County in 2011. 

“Kids want to see their parents,” she said. “But we want for them to see them safely.”

Without the center, Morris-Hardeman said visits could become unsupervised, leaving non-custodial parents with no one to make sure they do not manipulate their children, or occur under the supervision of other family members or close friends, which counteracts the neutrality of the Sunflower CASA offices.

Readers interested in learning more about the center can call Sunflower CASA at 785-537-6367.

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