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Family Bridges Program helps families stay together

Pendleton Place’s Family Bridges Program offers a unique opportunity for parents and children to build relationships.

In some cases, it is best (or even required) for parents to have a third party who can facilitate drop off and pick up of children for visitation – a safe exchange. Family Bridges can fulfill that role and more. The program is the only one in the state that is accredited. It operates according to the best practices of the Supervised Visitation Network.

“South Carolina has historically bounced within the top one or two spots for domestic violence in the country,” Marie Majarais Smith, the program’s director, said.

And with the recognition of April as Child Abuse Awareness Month, focusing on healthy family relationships is critical, no matter what transition a family is facing.

“When parents are going through a contentious divorce, if there are any mental health, substance abuse or family violence concerns, a judge might order supervised visitation,” Smith said. “We exist to be that middle person. We provide a safe and neutral space for exchange or visitation.”

Supervised visits typically last for two hours and are held in a family-friendly, home-like location.

“We encourage normal parent and child activities,” Smith said.

The parent and child can have a meal together, bake cookies or play basketball or video games, all in a safe environment.

“We put a ton of focus on being objective and neutral,” Smith said. “We never make recommendations on custody. We can’t guarantee that someone’s behavior in a monitored environment is what it will be outside of these walls.”

SLED-certified, plain clothes security officers are always present. Safety is paramount throughout the visit or exchange.

The service can mean that parents can maintain a relationship with their child that would not otherwise be possible.

“In cases of domestic violence, you have a pending criminal case where they may have no contact, but the court will still order visitation,” Smith said. “A lot of times, these parties can’t comply with one order without violating another.”

Parents have staggered drop off and arrival times, so there is never any contact between the two parties.

“We don’t alter our protocol based on the severity of the case,” Smith said.

Pendleton Place does charge a fee for the services, but subsidies and a sliding scale fee are available. Visits are available in English or Spanish. Coached supervised visitation, transitional visits (for those who do not require constant monitoring) and monitored phone calls are also offered.

“We don’t want cost to be a barrier but we do want the accountability,” Smith said. “We’ll never be neutral as far as safety, but we are conscious of dignity and respect and we want families to feel that. It comes down to that child. They want a relationship with that parent and they deserve the right to have that.”

During visits, there is no discussion of the other parent, the court date or anything related to the divorce. The service is available for children of all ages, from infants to teenagers. Though it is often utilized as a result of a court order, Smith said that is not required.

“We are all faced with situations that are less than ideal, but at the end of the day, it’s about family relationships and those children,” Smith said. “We want to make sure children know it’s not their fault. Their parents still love them. We want to make sure there’s a healthy environment to make that happen.”

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