Children in foster care can now visit their families in a cleaner and more enjoyable space, complete with DVD players replacing “ancient” TVs with VHS players.
Visitation rooms at Gainesville’s Division of Family and Children Services offices were substandard, according to Ari Mathe, a children’s attorney in the Hall County juvenile court system.
She said the rooms used to be really bad for morale and had couches that smelled of urine, disgusting carpet and toys, books and games in disrepair.
“Caseworkers themselves dreaded putting kids and families in that environment,” Mathe said.
Lindsey Bray, a foster care supervisor at DFCS, said when children previously came to the office, especially teenagers, they were often bored.
“There was not a lot of room to sit, and there were only baby toys to play with,” she said.
There was also no monitoring system, so case managers had to stay in the room during visitations.
“They were not good for facilitating meaningful visits for families or allowing kids to sit and have a moment for themselves,” Mathe said.
After working for about 10 years in the system locally, Mathe decided she wanted to help. She asked case managers at DFCS what she could do, and they gave her a list of projects and needs that would help make their jobs a little easier and better the lives of children and families.
On that list was a request to improve the visitation rooms. Mathe worked with several local organizations to make revamping the rooms a reality.
Among those who volunteered with demolition and construction on the project were representatives from Hall County Fire Services and Absolute DUI and Defensive Driving. Shannon Hughs, Court-Appointed Special Advocates supervisor, provided design and planning work. Several other local businesses provided financial assistance and materials at cost.
Volunteers ripped out the floors and threw out old furniture.
Then they cleaned the rooms, repainted them, laid flooring and added all new furniture and equipment.
Each of the two rooms is now equipped with a video monitor mounted in the corner so caseworkers can observe the rooms while giving the families space and being able to continue working from their desks.
The changes were drastic, Mathe said.
“Nobody will have to feel bad about kids and families using this place,” she said. “It’s a really nice place for the families to be.”
Mathe said all of the volunteers that helped make the project possible went above and beyond their job descriptions.
“It’s pretty amazing what people are willing to do if you just give them a chance,” she said.
Others have volunteered to monitor the books and toys and replace them if necessary and to deep clean the rooms.
“To see a bunch of community partners coming together was awesome,” Bray said.
She said watching various groups in the community come together to help with this project was great.
“It’s opened up a lot of doors with communication in the community,” she said.
The rooms now feature brightly colored furniture, carpet and decorations. There is one room geared toward younger children with toys and a play teepee. The second room was planned for teenagers and has adult coloring books, a video game console and an area to do homework.
“They were gross. Now it’s comfortable,” Bray said.
Both DFCS workers say the video monitoring systems are a great addition, allowing them to stay in their offices but still check in during family visitations.
“It makes an already uncomfortable situation less uncomfortable,” Bray said. “There’s newer stuff, things to do and a cleaner environment.”
Mathe said she hopes the DFCS workers feel the love and the support of the community because what they do is hard.
“They have to deal with a lot of heavy stuff and hard situations,” she said.