Lillian Mongeau / The Bulletin

Alisha Dobkins never thought the court would order that she was only allowed to see her daughter Hailey King, 5, during supervised visits. But in the summer of 2007, the situation with her partner exploded and that’s exactly what happened.

So, once a week, Dobkins would arrive at Deschutes County’s only supervised visitation and exchange center, known as Mary’s Place, in Bend. She would wait in a room full of toys, coloring books and art supplies for her daughter to be dropped off. And with a staff member watching the entire exchange, she would have a few hours to spend with her daughter.

At the time, she was struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, so the court would not grant her custody.

Dobkins did not want Mary’s Place to be the only location she could see her daughter, but she now credits the program with helping her to pull her life together and regain custody of her child.

Dobkins is one of a growing number of parents the court has deemed in need of Mary’s Place’s services, but the available funding for the program is shrinking. The mainstay of their financial security has been a federal Safe Havens grant from the federal Office of Violence Against Women that it re-applies for every few years, but even that grant is for slightly less each time it applies.

Demand for Mary’s Place has risen steadily since the facility opened its doors in 2006, according to Gail Bartley, the center’s program manager. In the last six months alone the center has gone from serving 38 families in the second half of 2009, to 62 families in the first half of 2010, according to a report filed with the Deschutes County Court.

Mary’s Place does receive some additional funding through independent fundraising by Saving Grace, a portion of family law-related filing fees from the Deschutes County Court and a small grant from the Deschutes County Commission on Children and Families. Those funds cover just over 50 percent of the center’s nearly $250,000 annual operating costs.

“It’s like threading the hole of a needle,” Bartley said of finding enough money to run the center. “(Available funding) diminishes slightly every year. It’s $20,000 less if we do get (the federal grant) this year than the grant we’re on now, which is less than the one before that.”

Mary’s Place has just finished an application for an additional three years of Safe Havens funding and will find out in September if the application was successful.

The group is confident they will receive the grant again, according to Janet Huerta, the executive director of Saving Grace. If they do not, she said, there would be a rush to look for funding in other places. “If the money isn’t coming in we’re just like everyone else, we’d have to cut back, too,” Huerta said.

A safe place

Deschutes County Judge Michael Sullivan said Mary’s Place, which charges for its services on a sliding scale based on income, fulfills a need that was previously covered only by expensive private visitation supervisors or family members who were often overly trusting of the non-custodial parent.

Sometimes the court had to resort to denying parenting time altogether because there was no safe option for feuding parents to meet and exchange their child or for supervised visits, Sullivan said.

In addition to providing a safe place for children to visit with their non-custodial parent, Bartley said the center’s staff works hard to help struggling parents to learn how to have a healthy and productive relationship with their children.

Mary’s Place is run by Saving Grace, the tri-county area’s only shelter for women suffering abuse from their husbands or partners. Saving Grace also operates a domestic violence hot line. And though visitation and exchange services exist throughout the state, Mary’s Place is unique in Oregon for its concentration on helping parents involved in domestic violence. Close to 90 percent of the cases Mary’s Place sees involve some form of domestic violence, Bartley said.

“The overarching purpose of it is to prevent domestic violence,” Bartley explained. “That’s the linchpin of what this program is.”

Parents using the facility park in separate lots and enter through separate doors. Their arrival times are staggered so that the non-custodial parent is in the facility with a supervisor when the custodial parent arrives with the child(ren).

Most of the time, the non-custodial parent is also the one who has previously committed abuse, Bartley said. However, it is surprisingly common for women who have been living in abusive situations to lose custody of their children due to drug or alcohol abuse or their own violent behavior, Bartley said. She estimated that three in 20 cases at Mary’s Place fall into this category.

No matter the situation, if the non-custodial parent is late, the other parent will be called and advised not to come to the visit. This is meant to avoid the potentially lethal situation that could result if an abuser planned to intercept the abused parent outside the center, Bartley said.

Not all of the parents who use Mary’s Place are dealing with abuse. Some are simply going through such a contentious divorce or split they cannot see each other without erupting in anger.

Bartley and her staff take their role in preventing further domestic violence seriously. Research on domestic violence has shown that the time just after an abused person leaves an abusive relationship is the most most likely time for violence to escalate, Bartley said.

Working things out

Dennis Henry, 38, saw his daughter Arlissa Henry, 5, during supervised visits at Mary’s Place for four years after his former partner, Jolene Spindler, 32, filed a restraining order against him. Spindler left Henry in late 2005 and took shelter at Saving Grace, which was then called COBRA.

She said that despite her troubled relationship with Henry before she left him, she knew her daughter needed a father in her life. For a while, Spindler said, she would take Arlissa to visit Henry herself, but things were still too volatile to make this a healthy plan. Then she heard about the newly opened Mary’s Place.

“Well, they need to put one in every town for every situation in terms of being afraid of your partner or your husband,” Spindler said. “It got me out of the situation.”

Henry said when he first started at Mary’s Place in 2006, he was rebellious and using drugs. “I didn’t understand why I had to have a babysitter to see my daughter,” he said.

Mary’s Place staff have been trained to be more than just babysitters, though, Bartley said. They know how to stop visits if a parent arrives in an unstable condition or badmouths the other parent or the child. They have also been trained to give clear feedback on improving parenting skills and bonding with children. The staff encourages parents to ask their children questions, to do arts and crafts with them and to play games with them.

As time wore on, Henry said he learned to appreciate this support. He said the Mary’s Place staff him made him realize that he had to work to be a better father if he wanted Arlissa in his life. So when the court ordered that Henry take a parenting class, he did. Then he voluntarily signed up for three more.

Now Henry and Spindler have finally reached an agreement that they are both happy with. Arlissa stays with Henry every other weekend with no supervision. The rest of the time, she lives with Spindler.

“It’s been a long process to build that trust and see that he’s really changed to get that trust,” Spindler said of Henry. “Now, we’re able to work together and work things out. Without the feedback from Mary’s Place on the changes he’s made and counseling he’s done, I don’t know if I’d be able to see that change in him.”

Henry said he was proud of himself for becoming a better father and proud of Spindler for being willing to trust him again. He said he knew how much work that had been for her. And though any romantic relationship the two once had is definitely over, they communicate regularly about how to raise Arlissa. They even both used the same phrase to describe her personality. “She’s a little fireball,” each said.

“We’ll go to the park, we’ll play Barbies, and she’ll dress up and play princess. Sometimes we’ll just go for a walk and she pushes her baby doll in the stroller,” Henry said of the time he spends with his daughter now. “She’s my world. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

This support for fathers is one of the primary reasons Bend lawyer Joel Kent, a partner at the family law firm Stahancyk, Kent&Hook, said he recommends Mary’s Place to his clients when the conflict between them is particularly high.

“With facilities that come and protect people in abusive situations, sometimes they’re seen as woman-oriented,” Kent said. “Or a man may look at it as being anti-dad. But my experience is Mary’s Place is there for the children and stays out of taking sides.”

’I am so happy with my mom’

Dobkins said that the neutrality she found at Mary’s Place allowed her to maintain a relationship with her child when she was in a bad situation. She said she was doing drugs, had physically attacked her mother and was homeless during the beginning of her time using Mary’s Place.

In June 2007, court records show, Dobkins’ partner filed a restraining order against her. She also filed for prevention of domestic abuse against him. In the meantime, he had initial custody of their daughter.

“There were times when we had to stop visits because I was too emotional. (Mary’s Place staff) said, ‘OK, Alisha, we’re going to stop this visit.’ And I appreciate that,” Dobkins said. “There were several times I went there when I shouldn’t have (because I was high). It was because I was being selfish and I wanted my daughter.”

With encouragement from the staff at Mary’s Place, Dobkins moved back home with her parents and began the long process of getting clean. In August 2009, she won custody of Hailey. She said she still does arts and crafts with her daughter, reads library books with her every night and plays outside with her on their swing set.

For Dobkins and her daughter Hailey, the process of regaining trust with Hailey’s father is moving slowly. In the meantime, Hailey said she was happy living with her mom and grandparents and Dobkins is working on a correspondence degree with the goal of becoming first a paralegal and then a lawyer. She said she wants to help other women in her position to figure out how the courts work and to file for custody of their children.

“Now I live with my mom,” Hailey said with a characteristic smile. “I just love her. And, well, I am so happy with my mom.”