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Supervised Visitation-An overused band-aid

Supervised visitation is something of a pandemic in Bernalillo County. While supervised visits can serve a purpose, i.e. – a safe arena for a child to spend time with a parent, supervised visitation is an overused process in family law and custody cases and can be to the detriment of parental rights and innocent children. While cases of verifiable abuse or drug usage certainly merit supervision as well as any other abuse or neglect case under the auspices of the Department of Children Youth and Families (CYFD), the notion of supervised visits is more far-reaching than CYFD abuse and neglect cases.

Under what circumstances would a court order supervised visitation? As previously stated, supervised visitation is a necessity when serious physical or mental abuse has occurred and generally substantiated by CYFD. Supervised visits are also a necessity in drug or alcohol abuse cases. The duration of the supervision will differ depending upon the severity of the abuse or neglect, or the level of drug or alcohol abuse.

The notion of supervised visitation may be imposed in a custody case when drug or alcohol abuse is alleged and the court orders drug testing. One party invariably tests positive for illicit drugs, and that party will be forced to do all visitation as supervised by one of the facilities delineated below. The Court will probably set a review hearing within three months while the violating party continues the supervised visits until the review hearing date. If that party has no further drug infractions, unsupervised visits may be reinstated. If, however, the drug abuse is long-standing and substantiated by the court or CYFD (as opposed to solely upon the word of the opposing party), supervised visitation could continue indefinitely.

Supervised visitation may also be imposed when one party alleges the other parent has harmed the child in some manner or another. In those cases, the Court is placed in the unenviable position of determining whether abuse occurred based on a “he said/she said” scenario. There may be allegations ranging in severity as serious as discipline with a belt or on-going verbal abuse, or as minimal as forcing the child to walk home from school, or even frequent crying from the child following a visit or statements of not wanting to return to the other parent’s home. I have seen the court implement supervised visitation under all of these factors.

What is expected when such allegations are made is that the Court will order an investigation, similar to what CYFD would undertake prior to the implementation of supervised visits. This may include the services of the Court Clinic or guardian ad litem. What the court should not do is order supervised visitation without an investigation, based on the flimsy allegations of one parent. I find those cases terribly unfair and I see these cases quite typically with certain judges.

In one recent case, our firm represented the father. He had had a terrible time obtaining reasonable timesharing with his son. The mother refused to allow any visitation other than that supervised by herself. Through our firm and after a lengthy court battle, the father finally obtained unsupervised visitation with his three year old son. He had two visits when the mother filed a motion to reinstate supervised visits. The mother reported the child was “acting out” after visits with father. The judge reinstated supervised visits based on nothing more than mother’s statements that child was “reacting.”

In another case, supervised visits were initially justifiably imposed by the judge because of the father’s chronic alcoholism. However, five years later, the supervised visitation was still being imposed! The father had stopped drinking years earlier, but the mother would not agree to unsupervised visits, nor apparently would the judge.

Judges tend to err on the side of caution in these cases, but I really believe the notion of supervised visitation is completely overused and is not in the children’s best interests. If allegations of drug abuse or physical abuse are made, a very simple investigation can be undertaken to determine if the abuse has occurred. If CYFD investigates and does not substantiate the abuse, supervised visitation should not be imposed. If CYFD is not investigating, then the court clinic, guardian ad litem or even the court itself can undertake a very simple investigation and order drug testing. If there are no factors justifying supervision, supervision should not be imposed. If there is no abuse, but only flimsy allegations by an overly controlling parent, perhaps it is that parent who should be supervised. However, more often than not, the courts are kowtowing to those parents to the detriment of the other innocent parties involved.

If supervised visitation has been ordered in your case, there are three private facilities in town that provide such supervisory services:

  • APN Family Support Center is located in downtown Albuquerque at 700 Lomas Blvd. My records show it was founded by Jeri Miller in 2002. Its facility consists of an older home with several rooms devoted to visitation including rooms devoted to toys, movies or kitchen facilities. Cost is generally $25.00 per hour.
  • Neutral Corner, located on Nob Hill at 118 Dartmouth, is also a private supervising agency, although Youth Development Inc (YDI) recently took over management according to YDI’s website. Its setup is similar to APN’s and the cost is approximately $20.00 per hour, also offering sliding scale fees.
  • Family Services is located at 1520 Deborah in Rio Rancho. It too has been in existence approximately 10 years and like the other agencies, charges $20 to $25.00 per hour.

Another alternative is Mr. Paul LaBarre, a locally trained parenting coach often retained by the courts or individuals to supervise visits and/or provide parental coaching. He might offer disciplinary techniques or counseling to a parent he overhears inadvertently disparaging the other parent or berating a child. Mr. LaBarre charges from $25 – $40.00 per hour and accompanies the parent and child on various outings as decided by the parent.

As far as agencies go, I strongly prefer APN over the other two facilities. Ms. Miller retains a well-trained, friendly staff who are not easily drawn into the pathos brought into the agency by the sparring parties. While Neutral Corner has the benefit of a sliding fee scale, APN has supervisors that will accompany the parent outside the agency, to the family members’ home or to places such as Chuck E. Cheese or movie theaters. Neutral Corner has grown less palatable since been taken over by YDI and retains a strong institutional feeling. The parent being supervised is treated like a presumed criminal. APN, on the other hand, seems to view everyone in a neutral manner. I have not yet had significant dealings with Family Services of Rio Rancho.

At the supervising agencies, one can expect two to four hours with the child in a sterile environment while your every move is observed by a younger person working in an intern-like capacity taking copious notes which will later be subpoenaed into court by both sides hoping to prove their respective case. I think it is very difficult to promote a normalized relationship between a parent and child in such a setting. Judges should keep this in mind when they order supervised visitation as frequently as it seems to occur.