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Visitation for some kids may get harder

Unable to get a $350,000 grant, an official says the CASA agency may have to close two of its three centers.

By MELANIE AVE
Published August 17, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Many times when a marriage dissolves into shouting matches between parents, the children are caught in the crossfire.

For the past three years warring parents have been ordered by judges to exchange their children at three safe sites around Pinellas County: St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Clearwater. The parents never see each other to avoid confrontations.

But now the nonprofit agency that operates these "visitation centers" says it may have to close the St. Petersburg and Clearwater locations because it did not receive a two-year, $350,000 federal grant. The Justice Department received 95 proposals for $36-million but doled out only $13-million.

Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA, was notified last month it would not receive the grant, which it first won three years ago.

Unless the 29-year-old domestic violence agency can get additional funding, the two sites may have to close at the end of September, said Kris Nowland, CASA's director of youth education and support services.

The result: Dozens of children will have to wait longer between parent visits. "We are sending out a plea to all of our supporters," Nowland said. "Parents were waiting up to six months prior to this grant. We're very fearful we'll have to go back to that."

Agency officials are lobbying Pinellas County commissioners for temporary financial support. They also plan to reapply for the grant later this year.

CASA is the only organization in Pinellas that contracts with the courts to provide monitored exchanges and supervised visitation of children. Often the families have suffered domestic violence, substance abuse or mental health problems.

Nowland sees the centers as crime prevention too, because it keeps angry parents apart.

Each of the centers provides a uniformed officer and staff member to monitor the visits between parents and their children.

"These services provided by CASA are absolutely critical," Judge David Demers, chief of the 6th Judicial Circuit, said through a spokesman.

CASA opened its first visitation center in 1996. Three years ago, it expanded its hours and its sites after helping win the county a $342,000 federal grant, which represents about 58 percent of the agency's visitation center budget.

"I really think this is a service not many people know about but is very important in the lives of children," said Christine Warwick, director of the Haven of RCS, which supervises the Clearwater visitation center. "It's a very big deal for the families we're serving. This is court-ordered visitation.

"Children are at risk for lots of things without this."

[Last modified August 17, 2006, 06:29:49]


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