Erma’s House: Supporting families and protecting children

By Elaine Schweller-Snyder

The colorful visitation rooms at Erma’s House are full of toys and comfortable furnishings that project the warm and coziness of home, key ingredients to making children feel loved and secure. But this is no regular house. It’s a supervised visitation center, designed to provide a safe space to allow children from fractured families to maintain a relationship with their non-residential parents.

The need for supervised parenting may be related to divorce or separation, child abuse or neglect, protection or restraining orders, or other issues that make a neutral setting particularly important to the safety and comfort of the family unit. Having a safe space reduces the potential for physical and emotional harm for both children and parents.

Erma’s House Family Visitation Center – a program of Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – is named for the late Erma Bombeck, the beloved humorist and Dayton native.  “We were all aware that a sense of humor is necessary for dealing with families,” said Peggy Seboldt, the center’s first manager. Now retired, she still volunteers there today. “Naming it for Erma gave it a warm, nurturing feel from the start.”

That’s especially important for this population. Since many children may not feel comfortable around the parent who has left the home or even blame themselves for their parents’ problems, the center needs to be a happy place where no one takes sides.

“Maintaining and rebuilding families in a safe and neutral environment is the mission of Erma’s House,” said Program Manager Shannon Wahrhaftig. “Children deserve to know and interact with their parents, no matter what caused the family to break apart, yet it is important that the interaction is safe.”

A Safe, Neutral Place

In 1993, the Montgomery County (Ohio) Child Protection Task Force was convened in response to a growing concern about child protection issues in Dayton.  A year-long study resulted in a 90-page report titled “A Community That Supports Families and Children.” Based on the report’s recommendations, a Child Protection Work Group was formed to explore the establishment of a supervised visitation center.

With collaboration and support from community partners, Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley was approached to operate the new center, which opened in 1997. Based in Dayton, Catholic Social Services serves a 10-county region with a variety of programming that touches all ages, from the unborn to the elderly.

During a recent visit to Dayton, CCUSA President and CEO Sister Donna Markham, OP, PHD, was particularly interested in the security aspects of the center, given the potential for conflict among estranged family members.

“We have off-duty Dayton police officers here as security during visitation hours,” said Wahrhaftig, who has been with the center since 2000. “We have separate entrances and parking lots for the visiting parents and custodial parents, and we stagger their arrival and departure times so that they don’t have to come in contact while on our property.”

Trained staff and volunteers monitor the interactions between parents and children, observing the visits and keeping a record of activities. The monitor only intervenes if it is considered necessary for the emotional or physical safety of the child. The center averages about 65 to 70 visits per month.

To access the services of Erma’s House, families must be referred by a third party. About half of referrals come from the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Court or Montgomery County Juvenile Court. The courts refer families that are experiencing problems with drugs, alcohol, mental health, or other issues if it has been determined that it is not safe for the children to be alone with the non-residential parent. Supervised visits at Erma’s House then become part of the court order.

The other half of referrals come from Montgomery County Children’s Services. Most of these are families that are in kinship care or the foster care system. Children who have been removed from their homes of origin for abuse or neglect need a safe, neutral location to visit with parents when they no longer live with them, and Erma’s House provides that.

The center’s lifeblood is its roughly two dozen volunteers, whose ranks include retirees as well as students from the nearby University of Dayton, a Marianist Catholic institution. The small staff of four is led by Wahrhaftig and her assistant Janette Heberling, who has been at Erma’s House since it opened. Wahrhaftig credits their success to the staff’s longevity and the dedication of its volunteers.

“Erma’s House is such an important place because children need to see their parents,” said Volunteer Sherry Betche. “Children still love their parents no matter what they have done.  Erma’s House provides a non-threatening environment that allows this to happen and yet allows the child to feel safe.”

Elaine Schweller-Snyder is part of the Marketing/Development Team at Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, based in Dayton, Ohio.