County government funding helps Families First Visitation Station provide much-needed services

Published 12:01 am Friday, November 5, 2021

SALISBURY — With funding for the Families First Visitation Station in Rowan County now in hand, Beth Hamilton can breathe easy for the first time since the end of September.

Hamilton, program manager for Visitation Station, was left scrambling when the agency was notified in August that it wouldn’t be receiving grant funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission this year. 

For the past several years, the grant has helped Families First operate Visitation Station — a neutral site where parents and guardians can safely visit their children while family court proceedings continue. 

“We are a referral source for the court systems, (Department of Social Services) caseworkers and attorneys when families are going through domestic violence issues, substance abuse issues, or any kind of custody issue,” Hamilton said.

When funding for the program expired at the end of September with no alternate source in place, Families First was forced to look into new avenues. That search is over now that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners has allocated $92,800 to fund the program for a year.

It’s a good day now that we’ve gotten that funding,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a little scary thinking of the families that we serve potentially losing the service.”

Before funding was approved by commissioners on Monday afternoon, Visitation Station was kept afloat on a week-to-week basis through donations from generous local residents and lawyers, many of whom have come to rely on the service for their family law practices. The Rowan County United Way also provided emergency funding, Hamilton said.

“United Way was a huge step in keeping us going this time,” Hamilton said. “They gave us some emergency funds that greatly made the difference in us lapsing service, so kudos to them.”

Families First, a nonprofit started in Rowan County in 1986, opened Visitation Station about two decades ago. A second Visitation Station was started in Kannapolis around 2018 to serve families in Cabarrus County. 

The Rowan County Visitation Station was previously located at St. John’s Child Development Center, but is now housed at the Department of Social Services at 1813 E. Innes St. Every weekend, two rooms at the department become the place where families can connect safely.

The sessions are monitored by a neutral observer who takes notes. Off-duty law enforcement officers are hired to provide security and can step in on the rare occasion when a visit turns into an argument. The parties involved in the visit enter and exit the building at different times, to prevent any contact outside of the safe environment.

Visitation Station served a total of 922 parent and child contacts in 2021, according to Hamilton.

Hamilton started working part-time at Visitation Station about a decade ago, which is when she realized how critical the service is for families in Rowan County. 

“The more I did it, the more I loved it,” Hamilton said. “I loved sitting in there and watching the interaction between the parent that only gets that hour or two hours every week, trying to maintain that bond. It became very personal to me. I fell in love with the service and what we were trying to do.”

Hamilton took over as program manager in 2018 and has continued to oversee the program that has become an invaluable tool for local attorneys.

“I’ve had a couple of cases in particular that, had my client not had the opportunity to utilize services at Visitation Station, they wouldn’t have had any resource or any way to see their children,” Salisbury lawyer Chris Sease said.

Outside of Visitation Station, Sease said, there are few, if any, alternatives.

“There is nothing like it, which is why it’s so integral to our community and why it’s so important that we keep it,” Sease said.

Sease said there are probably 15-20 Salisbury attorneys who specialize in family law and rely regularly on Visitation Station. The notes recorded in the sessions, he said, are often used in court when custody comes into question.

Visitation Station is free to those who use its services, but the cost of the program is not. While Families First uses the Department of Social Services facilities at no charge, the nonprofit has to pay the salaries of the contracted monitors and security guards. Additionally, Families First buys the toys, games and other materials used to help a parent or guardian engage with a child they might only get to see for a few hours each month.

The money provided by Rowan County government will sustain Visitation Station until next fall, but Hamilton said Families First is continuing to look at alternative funding sources moving forward. The agency does plan to apply for the Governor’s Crime Commission grant when the process reopens next year.