Until about three years ago, supervised visits between birth parents and children ordered by Allegheny County family court into Project STAR foster care took place comfortably in a playroom at the social service agency's Wilkinsburg office.
But then the number of court-ordered visitations began increasing, and the visits spilled over into the lunchroom of the nonprofit, an arm of The Children's Institute. And as the visitations continued to increase, they spilled into Project STAR's conference room, too.
And that, Project STAR executive director Patricia Saunders-Madison said, is where the idea for a separate, warm and homelike visitation center complete with areas for making meals and doing homework, as well as for play, came from.
Project STAR Family Visitation Center, located in a renovated duplex on a corner of The Children's Institute's Squirrel Hill campus, was dedicated Thursday. Project STAR already has a homelike visitation center in Beaver County.
The new center, which has room for four families to meet privately at the same time -- six if necessary -- is believed to be the first such facility in Allegheny County.
"Our contract monitor, Brooke Gould, from the Department of Human Services, said she didn't know of any others like this," Ms. Saunders-Madison said.
Families in court-ordered supervised visitation programs often visit in the offices and conference rooms of their caseworkers' agencies, like Project STAR families did. Allegheny County Children, Youth and Family Services (CYF), for example, has visitation rooms at its five regional offices equipped with toys and furnishings.
But CYF, family court, mediators and private attorneys can refer parents to the supervised parenting and play program of The Arsenal Family & Children's Center, which provides large and small well-equipped playrooms that can accommodate up to six families (children ages birth to 10) per group.
Project STAR's new facility has two complete kitchens, microwave ovens and refrigerators in the other two spaces, and handicap-accessible bathrooms. There are fireplaces, wall-to-wall carpeting, modern furnishings, bright artwork on the walls, and the Children's Institute's playground and Nimick Family Therapeutic Garden are just yards away.
The site was chosen because the Children's Institute already owned the duplex, which was run-down and being used for storage, and because it was located on bus lines.
"It met all the requirements," Ms. Saunders-Madison said.
The center renovation was funded by Eden Hall Foundation, the major contributor; Massey Charitable Trust; and B.K. Simon Family Charitable Foundation. PPG Industries provided the paint.
Established in 1985, Project STAR's focus is on adoption, foster care and in-home services. The foster children the nonprofit specializes in are those who are behaviorally disadvantaged, medically disadvantaged or those whose parents are "unable to parent," Ms. Saunders-Madison said. "There's always some emotional trauma."
Project STAR foster parents can be trained at the Children's Institute, the Children's Home, Children's Hospital or though at-home nursing.
"We have 40 families and 41 children," Ms. Saunders-Madison said. In the past fiscal year, the family court referred 1,600 children to Project STAR.
The goal of court-ordered, supervised visits is eventual reunification of the family, and dignitaries who spoke at the dedication said they believed that the new center will, as Administrative Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco of the county Court of Common Pleas Family Division put it, help children to "find permanent homes sooner."
Ms. Saunders-Madison said the center may eventually be made available to other social service agencies for supervised visitation.
"We're hoping other providers will come and see what a great place it is" and want to use it, she said. "We're about children."
Correction/Clarification: (Published August 4, 2012) The Children's Institute already owned the duplex where the new Project STAR Family Visitation Center is located. A story about the visitation center in Friday's editions incorrectly stated the original ownership of the duplex.
Pohla Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1228.