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story.lead_photo.caption Courtesy photo The Bridges Family Center provides a home-like environment for court-supervised visitation of children and families. Trained social workers, night and weekend hours and parenting classes are all designed to build healthy familiy relationships.

Caitlyn Davis recalled visitation days at a Northwest Arkansas office of the Department of Human Services. Her three young cousins had been removed from the custody of their parents by DHS. The parents were allowed to visit the children only with a DHS official present to supervise.

These supervised visits also were the only time extended family members got to see the children in foster care. So, in addition to the children, their parents and the social worker, the children's older siblings, grandparents, cousins and an uncle came for the visits.

Bridges Family Center

Open house

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: 5374 N. Crossover Road, Fayetteville

Information: (479) 231-6778

Yet, the visitation rooms at DHS were only about 5-by-5 feet and looked like an office, Davis recalled. And, often, the 10 to 15 family members had to wait two hours for a room to become available. (Davis' name was changed to protect her identity, as well as that of her cousins.)

Haley Holstein of Springdale also faced frustrations when it came time for supervised visitation. A foster parent, she drove three hours one way to a very rural location for the supervised visitation granted to the parents of her charges. Again, extended family were involved in the visits with the children, who had been removed from the home because of violence, Holstein said.

"A program aide stayed, but she was disabled," Holstein said. "She would not have been able to carry the kids out (if anything had happened). She wouldn't have been able to overpower (the family.)"


Holstein's frustration led her to found Bridges Family Center in Fayetteville as a place for these supervised visits. Felicia Ramos, a licensed social worker who spent time in the foster care system as a child, joined her effort as the executive director.

Bridges offers five visitation rooms, each outfitted as a family living room for comfort, as well as providing the parent an opportunity to see good parenting in a home setting.

"We want it to be child centered," Holstein said. "We think about what would a child see, what's best for the child."

April Shy, who practices family law with Taylor Law Partners in Fayetteville and serves as an appointed attorney for children in the foster care system, and Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman, serving Washington County Juvenile Court, agreed that Bridges is good idea and could benefit children of Northwest Arkansas. But both commented generally because neither knows much about the center or Holstein and Ramos, they said.

"Being at DHS reminds you why you are there," Shy said of visitations. "We suggest they take the child to a McDonald's play place or a park."

Holstein countered, however, that such play features consume the child's attention rather than allowing for quality interaction between the parent and child.

When a parent arrives for a visit at Bridges, all personal items will be put into lockers -- phone, wallet, keys -- to lessen the risk of flight, Holstein said.

Then the parent meets one-on-one with a social worker to discuss the visit. Together, the parents and social worker pick out several age-appropriate toys, books and crafts for the children provided by Bridges. "We suggest they pick several things because kids have short attention spans," Holstein said.

During the visit, the social worker can offer parents suggestions for engaging with children, Zimmerman said. "'Why don't you read Johnny a book? Why don't you have him sit in your lap while you read to him?'"

"The monitor can step in when they see the situation is overwhelming for the parent or child and offer some coaching," Holstein said. "The parents might feel like they're under a spotlight, but we want to help the parent relate to the child successfully. We want parents to be a success."

"We want to encourage nurturing interaction instead of just plopping them down in front of the TV or video game," Zimmerman said.

Supervised playtime can help the parent recognize a realistic expectation of a 3-year-old's development, Ramos said. A father might become frustrated and start yelling at the child for age-appropriate behavior.

"We want to give them real world practice," she said. "Teach them that yelling at the child for the behavior is not OK, and introduce a better reaction.

"Children are going to act out normally, but yelling at them and throwing things is not going to help," Ramos continued. "I have eight kids, and I still panic. Even the average parents don't always know what to do."

The parents and social worker meet again after the visit to discuss the session. "Pre- and post-conversations are important," Holstein said.

"We want to have a conversation, and not dehumanize (the parents)," Ramos said. "They've had their worst moments caught on tape.

"And what works with one family will not work for another," she said.

"I could not imagine seeing my children just once a week for an hour," Holstein said.

"Supervision is never a great experience," Shy said. "Nobody wants that. As pleasant as possible is what's best for the child. I think that's what we all should be concerned about."


Another focus of Bridges Family Center is "safe exchanges" for divorced parents who share custody.

Ethan Tisdale, the Realtor with Steve Feinberg and Associates who helped Holstein and Ramos find the right location, recalled his own exchanges.

"I grew up in a single-mother home," he said. "I was dropped off at a gas station in the middle of Oklahoma."

Although the parents' relationship was not contentious, "it was not the most pleasant of memories."

Recently, police departments have offered their facilities for safe exchanges. And Zimmerman sometimes orders exchanges to take place there. "I hate to do it," she said. "In a divorce, tensions can be high. Sometimes, it's the best option."

"But how do kids feel about being exchanged at the police station," Shy asked. "It's kind of a bummer. It's scary. It's intimidating. There are inmates present, and who knows what the kids see when they're there.

"A public place sometimes works, but some parents can't control their behavior," Shy continued. "It's real unfortunate that some parents can't behave long enough to exchange a child, but it's a fact."

"Some parents are in constant conflict," Ramos said. "Even when dropped off in a parking lot, at the police station, at Walmart, at school, parents start fighting.

"I hate having to explain to my 5-year-old why her friend is crying."

Holstein hopes for Bridges to offer co-parenting classes, with the parents in different sessions.

"They need to learn to remove themselves from the situation and put the child first."

During an exchange at Bridges, the custodial parent enters through the back of the building and the noncustodial through the front, Holstein explained. "There is never any contact.

"We want to end safety concerns," she continued. "The visit is the most important."


Another aspect of Bridges is parenting classes.

"It's all about education," Holstein said. "We must prevent the cycle of the system to be a success."

"Parenting classes are very important," Zimmerman said. "A video is not as helpful; you need to talk to the parent."

Many of today's troubled parents did not see good parenting modeled by their own parents, she said. "That doesn't make you a bad parent, if nobody's shown you how."

For example, a parent might not know how to make a doctor's appointment.

"The child later is taken way, and they don't know why. It's not their fault," Holstein said.

"It's truly preventive work," Ramos said. "We almost punish parents at their worst moment."

Sleep safety, nutrition, shopping with WIC, co-parenting with the parents in different sessions, all were offered as possible classes by Holstein and Ramos. They also hope to offer classes for teens that prepare them to deal with violence and classes for parents "who don't know how to have that awkward conversation," Ramos said.

Holstein hopes for a sponsor for a playground on the Bridges property, providing real world experience for family interaction, and to turn a training room into a family kitchen to model for their parents what a healthy family looks like.


Both Holstein and Ramos serve Bridges as volunteers and call on their experiences as a teacher and social worker, respectively, to develop the program. Both have completed extensive professional development programs and plan for more.

"Recruitment for social workers (to work for Bridges) is very stringent," Ramos ensured. "But being compassionate and caring is the most important."

"We want a monitor that will make a commitment to the family," Holstein said. "And we will train a social worker to the next level."

Payment for the monitor is necessary, but it's on a sliding-scale fee, Holstein said. Supervised visitation with a licensed social worker usually runs from $35 to $50 an hour, Shy said.

"Not a lot can afford that on a weekly basis," she said. "Parents find they can't afford it, so they don't get to see their children."

And unlike the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays schedule for visitations at DHS, Bridges will provide night and weekend opportunities.

Bridges provides another option for attorneys and judges, Shy and Zimmerman agreed.

During nearly 25 years working with child welfare cases, officials have called on their creativity to provide safe, healthy and nurturing options for children and families, Shy said. "I can't think of any more creativity we can use."

Zimmerman sees 200 to 250 cases a week of children and families in trouble. And of those, probably 30 to 40 percent need supervised visitation, she said.

"Kids need to see their parents -- no matter how bad the parents are," Shy said. "They have feelings of detachment, grief and loss."

"Families need a lot of support," Ramos said. "I really believe that with communication and understanding you can build strong families. And when you build strong families, you build strong communities."

"When the community comes together to help families, everybody wins in the community," Zimmerman said.

NAN Our Town on 09/07/2017

Print Headline: Building Bridges

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