Before the storm, a local YWCA provided a visitation center for families to meet in a secure and accepting environment.
by Claire V. Joseph
IDVAAC consults on New Orleans visitation center
uring the recovery efforts in New Orleans, families affected by domestic violence can find solace in a community visitation center, constructed specifically as a place where children can visit with noncustodial parents.
Before the storm, a local YWCA provided a visitation center for families to meet in a secure and accepting environment. That center no longer exists.
“After the storm, Catholic Charities assumed the responsibility for the visitation center’s grant,” said Mary Claire Landry, director of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Services for Catholic Charities. “We are currently going through a sixmonth planning phase that includes finding a location for the center and working to get the facility up and running.”
In the aftermath of a crisis, there are even more competing issues than usual in the African-American community. By keeping records of restructuring after Katrina, other domestic violence practitioners who experience community crises will have a foundation of learning to rebuild upon.
Although Catholic Charities is the supervising organization for the project, Dr. Oliver Williams and IDVAAC have been resources for the center’s organizers.
“Before and after the storm, IDVAAC has been a great resource to us,” Landry said. “He has visited and studied the area. He is helping to make sure our center and our policies are culturally aware and culturally specific.”
Changing demographics in wake of storm
The demographic of residents in New Orleans has changed since the storm, so Landry wants to be sure the center is comfortable and welcoming for all visitors.
“We anticipate that our primary demographic in the center will be African American, but we are also seeing a very large influx of Latino cultures and populations, as well,” Landry said. “We want to make sure that our center is culturally conscious and sensitive.”
Pamela Jenkins, a professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans and a member of the Mayor's Domestic Violence Advisory Committee, is an evaluator of the project. Jenkins noted that, although many pictures depict the structural damage Hurricane Katrina inflicted upon New Orleans, the damage Katrina caused to familial structures is harder to see, and thus is often overlooked.
“The safety of women is often invisible and the other issues take priority,” said Jenkins, so “the need for social support for survivors of domestic violence is great.”
“As the community is in recovery from Hurricane Katrina, many families are displaced,” Jenkins said. “Many families are still in trauma.”
Landry agreed and noted that, “there was certainly need prior to Katrina, but there is an even larger need now because there is a loss of support systems for families. Survivors, including family members and friends, have been relocated and churches have been destroyed. So, a lot of places where people used to find support are no longer available.”
Safe place to reunite
The overall goal of the center is to respond to the needs of the diverse range of family members who need a safe place where children can visit their non-custodial parent, and battered women don’t have to be fearful.
“We want to be able to respond to the needs of families,” Landry said. “And the center will offer a safe place to conduct safe exchanges between parents. We feel like this is an incredibly important service to provide for families who are already facing a number of difficult circumstances. If we can relieve just one stress, we’ve done our job.”
Once the center opens, it will be run by its director, Keith Spears, an attorney and former New Orleans police officer. The center will also be staffed by social worker monitors who will help lead activities and communication, as well as police officers who will make sure the location remains a safe haven for its clients.
Center will feature therapeutic program
The center will feature structured activities for parents and children, and the social worker monitors will help to make sure parents have therapeutic time with their children.
The center will be open to families who have court-ordered visitation mandates, as well as families who decide to use the center on their own.
“If the visit is court-mandated, the person would be referred to us through the court,” Landry said. “We would have an interview with the parent and then we would set up a regular visitation schedule, depending on what the court-ordered report says.”
If the visit is requested by an individual, “Then we’d do it on an individual basis, depending on what’s requested,” Landry said.
The visitation center is intended to become a model for other communities throughout the nation.
As Jenkins said, “I think that New Orleans can be a model for these centers created in a community in the midst of a long-term recovery.”