The NCAOC Access and Visitation Program

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1 The NCAOC Access and Visitation Program Administration In North Carolina, the Division of Social Services (DSS) Child Welfare Services Section, Community-Based Programs, administers the Federal Access and Visitation Program grant. Currently, the NC DSS contracts with the NC Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC) to operate six access and visitation programs in judicial districts where a unified family court has been established. A judicial district consists of various district courts organized in territorial districts. Access and visitation coordinators are hired locally by the chief district court judge and work within the family court program under the leadership and supervision of a family court administrator. NC Unified Family Courts and the Access and Visitation Program When the Administration of Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services was authorized by Congress to fund State Child Access Initiatives in each state, the Access Program was created: to establish and administer programs to support and facilitate non-custodial parents' access to and visitation of their children, by means of activities including mediation (both voluntary and mandatory), counseling, education, development of parenting plans, visitation enforcement (including monitoring, supervision and neutral drop-off and pickup), and development of guidelines for visitation and alternative custody arrangements Around the same time period that the Access Program was created, the NCAOC established pilot family court programs in three judicial districts which have now expanded to 13 judicial districts. Family courts were established to create a "forum that resolves family related issues in a manner that respects the rights of each individual family member, promotes the best interest of the family and helps families structure their own solutions." As a result, family courts are able to offer families more timely, consistent and responsive outcomes to their legal issues and are accessible to all citizens regardless of their economic status. Moreover, since the nature and sensitivity of family matters within the court system are not best resolved through the traditional adversarial process, a family court should encourage and provide opportunities for nonadversarial resolution of family issues, such as mediation and other forms of alternate dispute resolution. Due to the common interests and goals between family courts and the Access Program, the pairing was a natural fit. The Access and Visitation Program has historically been implemented in districts where a family court has been established; there are currently six family court districts with an Access and Visitation Program. The NC Access and Visitation Program Under North Carolina law, both biological parents are considered to have joint custody of a child until a court order decides differently. Therefore, in the absence of a court order, both parents have equal custodial rights to their children whether they have ever been married or cohabitated. However, when the child resides with one parent, that parent is exercising physical custody over the child. The other parent who has never exercised physical custody will often be looked upon unfavorably by the court if they take the child 1

2 without the permission of the other parent. Court orders that define an individual s rights and responsibilities toward a child also define both physical and legal custody. Legal custody pertains to a parent s authority to make major decisions for the child s best interest and welfare. Physical custody refers to having actual physical charge and control of a child. In North Carolina, a parent may have legal custody (ability to make decisions about school, health care, etc.) but not physical custody (ability to spend time with or care for the child). Visitation is a form of physical custody where the charge and control of a child is defined for a specific and limited period of time. For the purposes of this program, a non-custodial parent is defined as either a parent that does not have physical custody of his/her child or as much physical custody (i.e., visitation) as they desire. The purpose of the Access and Visitation Program is to increase non-custodial parents access to their children, to improve the quality of the parent/child relationship and expand the scope and availability of support services for families, parents and children. The target population for the Access and Visitation Program is non-custodial parents, both mothers and fathers, who are experiencing barriers in gaining access to and visitation with their children. However, the majority of the clients served in the Access and Visitation Program are fathers. This Program emphasizes that fathers are important and should have an important and active role in their children s lives. This includes noncustodial parents (both married and unmarried parents) with existing visitation and custody court orders, child support orders established from the Department of Social Services and private child support orders, as well as those parents who do not have existing court orders for visitation, custody or child support. Role of the Access and Visitation Coordinator There are five access and visitation coordinators in six judicial districts that work directly with non-custodial parents who want to have visitation with their children but have limited or no contact with them. However, the coordinators are not limited to providing their services to parents living in these six judicial districts. They are encouraged to assist non-custodial parents in counties that are contiguous to their respective districts where and when pragmatic. The access and visitation coordinators identify the underlying issues creating barriers to a non-custodial parent having access to and visitation with their children and support and facilitate the non-custodial parents access to their children. This is accomplished by referrals to social service agencies, offering assistance with mediation services (community or through the court via the Child Custody and Visitation Mediation Program), counseling, parent education and visitation enforcement services. When working with non-custodial parents, the access and visitation coordinator assesses the parent s needs and link him/her to services in the community, such as housing, health care, financial assistance, mediation, parenting classes, support groups, supervised visitation centers and job counseling. When the parent who is or has always exercised physical custody of a child does not agree to share physical custody, the non-custodial parent has few if any resources to assist him/her in gaining visitation with his/her children outside of filing a lawsuit in court, which many non-custodial parents cannot afford. Therefore, the assistance that the access and visitation coordinator provides is especially valuable as it is often the only service available to parents to help them either negotiate a mutual agreement or understand the process to obtain a court order defining how both parents will be involved with their children. 2

3 The coordinators accept and actively seek referrals from child support enforcement courts, family court judges, child support enforcement agents, attorneys, human service providers and other sources. The access and visitation coordinators perform individual case management and work to develop and maintain an active presence in the community to inform the public, social service agencies and organizations about the services offered to parents by the Access and Visitation Program. The access and visitation coordinators also identify needed services that are not offered in the community and work with local agencies and organizations to seek funding and implement these additional services, such as mentoring programs for fathers and supervised visitation and exchange centers. Allowable Services Services that are provided, directly and/or indirectly, include mediation, visitation enforcement services, parent education, counseling and development of parenting plans. Mediation Mediation may be court ordered or voluntary. Voluntary mediation is conducted by a community mediation center. The expected result of both court ordered and voluntary mediation is that the non-custodial parent and custodial parent will resolve parental conflict, negotiate an agreement in mediation and the non-custodial parent will have increased time with their children. The result is measured by the number of noncustodial parents and custodial parents that participate in mediation, either through the court or community mediation. The results are measured based on information communicated to the coordinator from the mediator in writing, by phone or entered in the family court case management system, Casewise. This information is documented in case management notes. Normally, parents attend one or two mediation sessions. Court Ordered Mediation When a custody or visitation lawsuit is filed in district court, the parties are ordered to attend a custody mediation orientation session and at least one session of mediation with a mediator that is employed by the court through the North Carolina Child Custody and Visitation Mediation Program. This mediation program provides statewide and uniform services in lawsuits involving unresolved issues about the custody or visitation of minor children. A court mediator must have a master s degree and have received at least forty hours of training in mediation techniques by a qualified instructor of mediation. During the court provided mediation session, the parties are limited to discussing custody and visitation arrangements. Community Mediation If mediation is voluntary and no court action is filed, mediation is conducted by a community mediator who is not a court mediator but is usually trained through the community mediation center. The Mediation Network of North Carolina is a non-profit organization established to foster the growth and development of community-based mediation programs in North Carolina. Community mediators help the parties: (1) clarify their own goals, resources, options, and preferences and make clear decisions for themselves about their situation; and (2) consider and better understand the perspective of the other party. Community mediation centers are not available to all Access and Visitation Programs. Three of the 3

4 Access and Visitation Programs do not offer community mediation. However, mediation through the court is available to all six Access and Visitation Programs. Visitation Enforcement Services There are two types of visitation enforcement services available to the Access and Visitation programs: supervised visitation centers and visitation compliance monitoring. Supervised visitation Supervised visitation services are particularly useful in high conflict situations but are only available to four of the six Access and Visitation Programs. The availability of this specialized service is dependent upon community resources. The majority of supervised visitation centers are supported with federal funds provided by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This service is not directly provided by access and visitation coordinators but they refer non-custodial parents to these facilities or a judge may order the parents to use this service once the coordinator has assisted the non-custodial parent in filing a custody lawsuit. The expected result is to increase the time that the non-custodial parent spends with his/her children especially where the relationship between the parents is marked by high conflict. The result is measured by the number of noncustodial parents that utilize visitation enforcement services, which is confirmed by a supervised visitation center or self reports. A self report may be in person, by telephone, survey or . This information is documented in case management notes. The frequency of supervised visits is determined on an individual basis. Visitation Compliance Monitoring Visitation compliance monitoring services are available to each Access and Visitation Program. This service is provided when the coordinator assists the non-custodial parent with the completion and filing of contempt or modification of custody/visitation paperwork through the courts due to non-compliance with an existing court order that outlines custody and/or visitation. Because of their experience and knowledge of the courts, the access and visitation coordinators are able to assist the non-custodial parent to navigate through the sometimes confusing and complex court process. The expected result is that non-custodial parents will understand the process to complete and file the appropriate paperwork when there are issues concerning the lack of compliance with a visitation or custody order. The result is measured by the number of contempt or modification filings, which can be determined through self report or through the family court case management system, Casewise. A self report may be in person, by telephone, survey or . The frequency of filings will vary according to each individual s circumstances. Parent Education Parent education is offered in all six programs. The parent education class provides information to parents on: o the effects of separation and divorce on children and families; o the impact of parental conflict on children; o improving parenting skills; o how to put a parenting agreement into effect; o court procedures for filing a motion for visitation; and o custody and visitation compliance issues. 4

5 Parent education may also encompass child custody pro se clinics that are offered in five of the six districts with the Access and Visitation Program. Pro se clinics are educational settings where an attorney volunteers their time to offer detailed instructions on completing necessary paperwork to file a lawsuit and answer legal questions. In these clinics, non-custodial parents learn how to complete the documents that are required in order to file a lawsuit or motion for custody or visitation without having to retain an attorney. While an attorney teaches the pro se clinics, the coordinator often organizes the clinic. The expected result of the parent education service is that the noncustodial parent will gain an understanding of their children s needs and how to work with the custodial parent to parent in separate homes. The result is measured by the number of parents that attend parent education classes and pro se clinics. This information is documented in the case management notes. Parents attend one parent education class. Counseling The access and visitation coordinators may offer referrals to a variety of counseling options; however, the coordinators are neither certified nor licensed counselors. The coordinators provide individual consultation. This may occur via telephone but typically occurs during intake when the non-custodial parent discusses their circumstances with the coordinator. Based on the information provided by the non-custodial parent, the coordinator makes recommendations about options available to the non-custodial parent in order to increase or gain access and visitation. The coordinators may also assist with communication between the custodial and non-custodial parents to help them negotiate an agreement about visitation. The expected result is that the coordinator will communicate valuable information to the non-custodial parent that will lead to the parent having more access to and visitation with their children. The measurable objective is the number of non-custodial parents that receive some form of counseling. The result will be measured by the number of participants that participate in individual consultations with the coordinator. Professional counseling sessions are counted based on self-reports by the non-custodial parent that they attended a counseling session. A self report may be in person, by telephone, survey or . This information is documented in case management notes. The frequency and duration of counseling sessions varies according to individual needs. Development of Parenting Plans During the individual consultations described under Counseling, the coordinators develop a plan of action and a schedule of services for the non-custodial parent to facilitate gaining access and visitation to his/her children. These plans are typically informal, are not the result of court ordered mediation and are not incorporated in a court order. However, a parenting plan may become an order of the court if the parties choose. The expected result is that parenting plans will be developed that allow noncustodial parents to receive increased access to their children. The result is measured by the number of parenting plans that are developed to increase the amount of time a non-custodial parent has with his/her children. The result is measured by self reports by the non-custodial parent. A self report may be in person, by telephone, survey or . This information will also be documented in case management notes. Normally one parenting plan is developed unless individual circumstances indicate a need for a revised plan. 5

6 Program Evaluation and Reporting Requirements Program Evaluation Site visits are conducted by the NCAOC Project Director to each of the six districts on an annual basis. The purpose of these site visits is to observe firsthand the work, challenges and successes of each district s Access and Visitation Program. The interview between the project director and the coordinator provides an opportunity to discuss problem areas and ways to improve the Program thereby improving service to non-custodial parents. A written summary of each site visit is provided to the coordinator, the family court administrator who provides local supervision and the chief district court judge who is the hiring authority. The summary indicates items viewed as strengths or positive accomplishments and general areas of opportunities or challenges. Each challenge includes a recommendation for improvement. Local Progress toward goals and objectives is monitored and assessed in the following ways: o Program participants are given customer satisfaction surveys by the access and visitation coordinators during the course of their participation in the program to complete; the feedback is used to evaluate the impact and success of the Program. o The family court administrator monitors the access and visitation coordinators daily operations and conducts performance evaluations. o The family court administrator ensures completion of monthly reports and annual statistical reports by the access and visitation coordinators. The NCAOC Project Director continuously monitors the performance of each of the six Access and Visitation Programs and provides technical assistance and operational expertise to ensure each Program is operating within the parameters of the grant. Reporting Requirements Monthly progress reports are completed by the access and visitation coordinators. These reports are sent directly to the DSS Grant Administrator and the state NCAOC Project Director by the 15 th of each month for the preceding month. These reports include a narrative description of activities performed (i.e., public speaking, trainings attended, support groups held, legal clinics attended, outcomes, etc.), problems encountered/resolved and progress made in meeting the goals and objectives of any projects. The reports also provide a monthly summary of statistics that are required for the annual federal report (i.e., referrals, clients served, services provided, etc.). The Federal Access and Visitation Annual Reports are due to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement by November 30 th of every year. In addition to demographics, these reports measure the intended outcome of the program. The successes of each site in meeting this goal is tracked by the access and visitation coordinator in each site and is reflected on the reports that are due in November of each year. This outcome is measured by self reports from the non-custodial parent. A self report may be in person, by telephone, survey or . The coordinators are required to submit their annual report to the NCAOC Project Director by the 3 rd Monday in October every year so that the reports can be reviewed for compliance with the State Child Access Survey Guidance. Once they are reviewed, the reports are then forwarded to the DSS Grant Administrator for final submission to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. 6

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