County supports family visitation center

Children need to feel safe and be comfortable when visiting 
with a noncustodial parent or being transferred from one parent to 
another.  Finding an environment for that to take place is proving to 
be difficult for families along the North Shore.
On April 15, 2012, Wendy Hansen of Cook County’s guardian ad litem 
office requested funding from the county board for the North Shore 
Visitation Center (NSVC), an initiative begun in 2008 to provide 
supervised visitation and child exchanges for children of separated or
divorced parents.
The program was started with a grant from the Northland Foundation, 
but funding was not ongoing.  Fifteen different families representing 
23 different children have been served over the last 3½ years, and all 
but two were referred by the court.  Judge Michael Cuzzo has relied on 
the program in family court proceedings, but it ran out of money this 
spring and had to suspend services.
“Although supervised visitation is court-ordered,” said a request 
for county funding from the North Shore Visitation Center, “it is, 
unfortunately, an unfunded service so our community struggles to pay 
for this valuable service.
“The nearest visitation center to Grand Marais is 100 miles away in 
Duluth and 146 miles from Grand Portage Reservation, creating a great 
need for a supervised site on the North Shore.”
A second location was established at Birch Grove Community Center in 
Tofte, and last fall, Grand Portage Reservation requested the service 
and offered a space to provide it.  A group of professionals from Lake 
County has also asked the North Shore Visitation Center to provide the 
service in the Two Harbors area.
With staff only working as needed, the program budget has been under 
$35,000 a year.  Wendy Hansen asked the board to commit to paying 
$5,000 a year for the next five years.  Other entities such as Lake 
County, the Cliffs Foundation, the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, and 
the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation are also being 
approached for funding.
Hansen also asked the board to make its contribution a line item 
separate from any departmental budgets.
Commissioner Bruce Martinson said he was not willing to make a five-
year commitment, saying that adding a line item to their budget mid-
year goes against the budgeting principles the board has been trying 
to follow in recent years.  He said he was willing to contribute 
$5,000 this year and hoped they would find other funding sources in 
the meantime and be presented with a request for ongoing funding 
during their normal budgeting process in late summer.
Hansen said they were asking for a five-year commitment so their staff 
time would not just be taken up in fundraising.  “We see this as an 
excellent way to take some pressure off our staff,” she said.  
“We’re trying to do this as low-budget as possible.”
Annie Debevec, who is on contract to provide the supervised visits and 
exchanges, said, “I have written oodles of grants over the last 3½ 
years since the program started.”  Grantors ask if they have any 
ongoing funding sources, she said.  Only one of their funders has made 
an ongoing commitment, and that is the Grand Marais Lionesses, who 
give $100 a year.
I’m willing to fund this for five years,” said Commissioner Fritz 
Sobanja.  “This is a dang good program. …I think the county should 
show its support.”
A motion to give $5,000 a year to the program for five years passed by 
a vote of three to one, with Commissioner Bruce Martinson voting no 
and Commissioner Jim Johnson absent.