Custody visits are expensive for the poor

April 08, 2007|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Custody battles are rarely gentle affairs, but if you are poor, such fights can carry an added frustration: waiting months to get a court-approved visit with your own child.

In cases involving allegations of domestic violence, which are increasing, or other issues, such as drug abuse and long absenteeism, judges often require that a child's visits with the noncustodial parent take place only in the presence of a professional, like a social worker. But when judges order supervised visitation, neither the court nor other government agencies pay for the service, which is a growing problem across the nation.

Because he cannot afford to pay for supervised visitation, which routinely costs $100 an hour, Juan Manuel Fernandez, 51, of New York said he has not seen his two daughters, ages 6 and 11, since October. A year ago, he said, his wife walked out, moved the girls to New Jersey, and told the court he was threatening her. He denies the accusation, but the judge in his case ruled that supervision was necessary. So now he is waiting for free supervision through a nonprofit agency, which can take months.

"It's very hard to have to wait to see your own kids," Fernandez said. "I felt like crying when I had to leave them," he said, especially because he knew it could be a long time before he could see them.

Only a handful of nonprofit groups provide free supervision, and they say because of financing pressures, the wait can often reach six months.

New York City court records show that roughly the same number of visitation cases were filed in family court, which handles custody and visitation for unmarried couples, in 2006 as five years ago (23,440 compared with 21,552 in 2002). Yet the number of cases with orders of protection attached has doubled in the last four years, reaching 8,856 this year.

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