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Saturday, September 8th, 2012

RAFT may be cut

By Betty Lawrence

RAFT program coordinator Karla Kessler, right, discusses the program's services. . .

A program that provides supervised visits for parents and children involved in custody disputes or abusive situations could be cut this month due to an unexpected funding loss.
OUR Home Family Resource Center employees recently learned the application to renew the three-year, $150,000 grant that funds the Reaching and Assisting Families in Transition program has been denied. Funds run out Sept. 30, and officials now are scrambling to save the program.
"This came as a total surprise, out of the blue," OUR Home director Kathy Mescher said. "We had applied to have the grant renewed and were counting on getting it. There were no indications that we wouldn't be receiving it."
RAFT started in Mercer County in 1997 and has been maintained financially with the grant through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Office of Child Support. The program serves Mercer County families and occasionally families from neighboring counties.
"I've been told this year there were many more applicants for the grant money and their thinking was that the more metropolitan counties needed the money more so than rural counties," said Angela Nickell, with the Child Support Enforcement Agency, which assists OUR Home with grant applications. "They (the state) did an onsite review last year, and they recommended no changes. Everything was satisfactory."
Karla Kessler, a licensed social worker who heads the program, said her caseload of approximately 25 families a month has more than doubled in the past three years.
"Many of the families we see are unwed parents who are can't come to an agreement with the child/children. They hear about us, and they call and ask if we can do anything to help them see their children," she said. "There is such a need for this program. My goal is to help the children. It's always children first."
Mescher said she is looking to find interim funding while seeking financial support from national service organizations.
"The funding definitely will stop, but we hope to keep it going somehow and find some kind of interim funding," she said. "The goal is to find some long-term funding. There are many charitable organizations out there and we will be looking into them ... If there's no funding for this, it would have a detrimental effect on Mercer County families."
Nearly half of Kessler's families are court ordered to use the program. Families are not charged for RAFT services.
Use of RAFT services comes about through three situations, according to Nickell.
A non-custodial parent in an unwed situation may want visitation with a child, which can be accomplished only through a supervised visit using RAFT.
"Sometimes this is the only way the parent can spend time with the child," Nickell said.
A second situation is a family separated due to abuse. Supervised visitations are often court ordered due to safety concerns. The third scenario is when a parent/parents are found unfit through abuse, dependency, etc., and again the court orders supervised visitation to maintain the family unit.
"If there were no RAFT, they likely would exchange at the police station," Nickell said. "That's what they did in the past, before the program was set up."
The program is housed inside the OUR Home building on West Fayette Street. It includes a living room, kitchen and play area to provide a home-like atmosphere to foster family interaction.
The grant money covers Kessler's salary, rental of the building space, administrative fees and supplies.
"The biggest concern we have is what will these families that come here do if we shut the door," Kessler said. "That's the part we are concerned about. I would lose my job, yes, but the major thing is the families."
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