VFiT offers friendlier setting for divorced parents visiting kids

MIDDLEBURY — Imagine this scene: a family is entering divorce proceedings with a husband and wife who aren’t able to work out a collaborative transition, often resulting in a restraining order being placed on one of the parents. That restraining order, once lifted, then limits the affected parent to visiting hours with his or her children only during work hours, Monday-Friday, at the Addison County Courthouse.
For parents who can’t take time off during the workweek, that’s a problem. And even if they can make those hours, the sterile courthouse rooms or hallways offer a poor substitute for a home-like environment.
Irene Poole, an assistant family court judge in Addison County for the past four years, resolved to change that dynamic and recently opened Vermont Families in Transition, or VFiT, a safe meeting place for families in conflict. Located adjacent to the Addison County Sheriff’s Department at 39 Court St. in Middlebury, VFiT services include supervised visitation, monitored exchanges, parenting classes and family mediation at affordable prices and during hours accessible to working parents. With its pale blue walls, armchairs, and area rugs, the building is meant to feel more homey than institutional to help children feel safe and relaxed during visitation.
The facility’s amenities include multiple entrances with separate parking lots, necessary to prevent contact between parents, and two visitation rooms designed for children of different ages. Its front room is filled with toys meant for young children, while the other room, outfitted with larger furniture and a full-size dining table, offers older children crafts, puzzles and a working kitchen. Parenting classes and mediation will be offered upstairs.
Poole, who is VFiT’s executive director, opted not to run for re-election to the judge position so she could start a nonprofit addressing a community need that became her passion during her time in family and civil court. Every week, she said, often in cases involving domestic violence and substance abuse, she watched judges order parents to have contact with their children only under the supervision of another adult in a restrictive environment.
WomenSafe, an organization working to end domestic and sexual violence against women and children, offers supervised parental visitation of children at the Addison County Courthouse during business hours, but before Poole created VFiT, no alternative existed for parents unable to make it at those times. VFiT aims to supplement the WomenSafe program and expand parental access by having its open hours during evenings and on weekends.
Poole described a father crying in the courthouse after not seeing his child for a year, because even though he had done nothing wrong over that year and had never laid a hand on the child, he said he would lose his job if he took time off work for visitation.
“I just thought, ‘This is wrong,’” Poole said.
Poole, a Ripton resident and Middlebury massage therapist, began developing VFiT two years before the end of her term as an assistant judge: she selected a name, visited similar operations and sought out training. While no licensing process exists for supervised visitation centers, Poole attended an initial 24-hour training for visitation facilitators alongside her partner, Tom Cabot, through the national Supervised Visitation Network, and underwent additional training specifically for center directors.
The goal, Poole said, is “safe, non-judgmental, neutral supervised visitation.”
Many of the children will not have seen their parents for months before they reunite in VFiT’s playrooms.
“People have had horrible struggles, and we can’t judge them,” Poole said. “We’ve got to give them a chance.”
Citing the importance of having experienced people in the visitation rooms, Poole found retired schoolteachers to work as supervision volunteers. She also assembled a board of directors, responsible for managing affairs and property, and a board of advisors, composed of community members, including retired state police, attorneys, psychologists and mediators, whose experience is accessible to VFiT.
Poole started looking for a building three years ago. She settled on 39 Court St. last year, signing the lease in June. Renovation work started in September and for the past four months the place was a construction zone. She played an integral role washing the walls before painting and being on site to answer hundreds of small questions.
“I was basically the general contractor,” she laughed.
The upstairs space for mediation was an important part of choosing the current site. Poole said that judges encourage mediation prior to court, but the service is expensive and many self-represented litigants end up unhappy with the agreements that result from court. Families with access to the low-cost mediation VFiT provides will be able to work issues out for themselves and bring predetermined agreements to court, Poole explained.
VFiT has received $50,000 from Cabot-related entities like the Virginia Willington Cabot Foundation. Its additional $10,000 in local donations includes a $3,000 Spark! Connecting Community grant for books and toys from the Vermont Community Foundation, which Poole plans to spend entirely locally.
The center depends on donations of books, toys and furniture as well as money, such as the donated leather recliners and discounted oriental rugs it received from Woodware in Middlebury, and desks donated by the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
Poole, who couldn’t open for business until her term ended as an assistant judge on Feb. 1, expects most of her clients will be Addison County residents. VFiT can be reached at 802-388-8010.

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