Budget cuts end free supervised parenting helpby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
When you hear about the impact of legislative budget cuts on Minnesota's court system, you might think of courthouses closing their public service windows for half days or higher fees to file lawsuits. But those cuts have also eliminated funding for programs that directly affect parents and their children. In March, Hennepin County court ended its 10-plus years of funding supervised visits between children and their low-income parents.
Minneapolis, Minn. — When Tom's marriage fell apart, Tom fell apart.
He said his wife took their sixth-month-old daughter to live with his wife's mother and filed for divorce. Tom, a recovering alcoholic who didn't want his last name used, said he couldn't resist the urge to drink again as a way to numb the loneliness of an empty house. He also got a DWI.
He said the court awarded custody of the baby girl to his ex-wife, and because of his alcoholism the court started him on two hours of supervised parenting time with his daughter once a week.
"My wife was fearful that I would be drinking in the presence of my daughter and she needed to have some sort of guarantee and trust, and the courts agreed with her," Tom said.
Through supervised parenting, Tom could still see his daughter in a safe setting and prove he could stay sober, go to treatment and AA meetings.
Some parents like Tom have just gotten out of drug rehab, prison, or are undergoing counseling for other problems. During a visit, a monitor sits in the room, takes notes, and afterwards may tell parents what they did right and wrong in interacting with their children.
At first, Tom was able to pay the $90 per week for the supervised parenting but eventually he ran out of money. He had done some construction work, but his wife, a nurse was the breadwinner in the family.
"When she left I had just the expenses, overwhelming expenses and didn't have the money to keep things going," he said. "I had to sell my house, my car, everything that I had at the time just to live."
To make ends meet, he turned to credit cards and cash advances. After maxing those out, he had to file for bankruptcy. Paying for time to see his daughter hung in the balance. But luckily for Tom, this was last October when Hennepin County Courts still paid for supervised parenting time for parents who could not afford it.
Hennepin County courts stopped paying for supervised parenting time in March. Family Court Judge Bruce Peterson said that means parents with no money have to find a free program. Few of those exist, and those that do aren't likley to take on new parents. He said most just do without.
"I think children have been hurt by this, certainly the parents who have been deprived of contact or haven't been able to maintain contact because they haven't had the services, have suffered," he said. "Our population is a very low-income population, we have middle class people too, but many people have nothing."
Tom was fortunate because the non-profit program that monitored his parenting, Perspectives in St. Louis Park, agreed to absorb the cost of his parenting time when the courts cut off his funding.
Linda Domholt of Perspectives said the non-profit is able to take on some parents who can't afford to pay, but it's extremely limited.
"We turn away families every single day for this because we don't have the capacity for the parenting time," said Domholt. "When people come to Perspectives, they don't have a lot of options so when we have to turn them away, it's very sad."
Hennepin County Chief Judge James Swenson said he supports supervised parenting because he saw it work positively in many families while he was a family court judge for 11 years. Swenson was also a member of the judicial committee that cut its annual funding of $135,000.
He says there was no choice. The Legislature cut funding to the courts and Hennepin County court had to cut back to funding the basics--like ensuring speedy trials.
"A number of my colleagues, and that's the majority, when faced with serious budget cuts, wanted to focus on what are the core operations of a court," he said. "And providing supervised parenting time, although very laudable, and in my humble opinion something that's essential for families; that's really not part of the court's core operations."
Swenson said the executive branch, that is Hennepin County, not the courts, should pay for the service but he acknowledged that the county's funding is also severely depressed.
Meanwhile, Tom has progressed to four hours of parenting time with his daughter where a monitor just checks in occasionally. He's going to meet his daughter with the monitor at the Mall of America. She's three now, and it's the first time he'll see her outside the program's building since she was a baby.
"I'm going to go early and scout around and see what she might like," he said. "I heard you can make your own teddy bear. She likes music, coloring books, and puzzles. We'll see all the hot spots and like I said get there early."
Family Court Judge Bruce Peterson said the problem with the supervised parenting program is that too many people view it as a program for troubled parents. He said it's really a program for children who just want to see their parents in a safe place, regardless of what their parents may have done.
- All Things Considered, 11/28/2008, 4:44 p.m.