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With ''Equal Regard'': An Overview of How Ellen Pence Focused the Supervised Visitation Field on Battered Women and Children
Melissa Scaia and Laura Connelly Violence Against Women 2010 16: 1022 DOI: 10.1177/1077801210379349 The online version of this article can be found at:

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With “Equal Regard”: An Overview of How Ellen Pence Focused the Supervised Visitation Field on Battered Women and Children
Melissa Scaia1 and Laura Connelly1

Violence Against Women -1030 16(9) 1022­ © The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: http://www. DOI: 10.1177/1077801210379349

Abstract Ellen Pence has changed the framework for doing supervised visitation and safe exchanges in cases of domestic violence. Ellen challenged the basic tenets of “neutrality” and a primary focus on “safety for children” in the supervised visitation field. By incorporating equal regard for the safety of adult victims of domestic violence and children, Ellen challenged supervised visitation centers to reexamine their mission, role, intake/orientation, documentation, and rules for their programming. She designed services for supervised visitation that would account for battering of women and children while not being excessively policing and providing a respectful and fair atmosphere for men who batter. Keywords safe exchange, supervised visitation When the federal government began funding supervised visitation within the context of domestic violence, a fundamental shift occurred for many supervised visitation and safe exchange centers. Ellen Pence, executive director of Praxis International, was a leader in this transitional phase for addressing the intersection of supervised visitation and domestic violence. In 2003, Praxis International was one of the first technical assistance providers to the Office on Violence Against Women for the “Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program.” Prior to the Safe Havens funding, most supervised visitations


Advocates for Family Peace, Grand Rapids, MN

Corresponding Author: Melissa Scaia, Advocates for Family Peace, 1611 NW 4th Street, Grand Rapids, MN 55744 Email:

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focused their work primarily on the safety of children. The Safe Havens funding challenged grantees to have an equal regard for the safety of adult victims and children. Ellen Pence created a vision, principles of practice, and a framework for the intersection of domestic violence and supervised visitation. The timing of her presence in the field of supervised visitation allowed her to essentially provide the leadership on an emerging social service. Prior to 2003, there were very few funding sources, resources, training, or coordinated technical assistance on addressing the intersection of domestic violence and supervised visitation. The historical practice and philosophy of supervised visitation and the preceding trainings primarily focused on providing a safe place for children to visit their parents while remaining neutral in the “conflict” between the parents. She expanded the role of the supervised visitation centers to explicitly include the lived experiences of those adults who needed to use the center, battered women. In her technical assistance, training, and writings, she challenged the fundamental principles of the supervised visitation field to be more accountable to the safety of battered women and their children. She led the movement in questioning established practices of the supervised visitation field.

Grounding Her Work in the Lives of Battered Women and Their Children
Ellen focused her institutional change work in the supervised visitation field by starting with the lives of those experiencing battering. She talked to people whose everyday lives are at the center of this work. She talked to those who grew up with a battering father, those who tried to be a partner and mother while living with a violent man, and those who fathered and battered and sought to change. She did this in individual meetings and in focus groups. She also read numerous case files from various supervised visitation centers and interviewed judges and supervised practitioners about their work. It is this grounding in the lives of battered women and their children that determined the direction she sought to take in changing the institutional practices of supervised visitation centers in cases of domestic violence.

Brief History of Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange
The practice of supervising visits is not new. Supervised visitation was done for years by child protection workers as a way to maintain contact between parent(s) and their child(ren) pending reunification or termination of parental rights (Sheeran & Hampton, 1999). Programs that provide supervised visitation and the concept of supervised visitation as a social service are relatively new. In 1982, there were only a few supervised visitation programs in place in the United States (Carlson, 2000). In 1997, a reported 94 supervised visitation programs were in existence (Carlson, 2000). Most of those services developed out of a need to serve child protection agencies and did not grow out of a need to serve battered women and their children. It has only been recently that supervised visitation services have been provided with cases of domestic violence in mind (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges [NCJFCJ], 1995; Saunders, 1998; Straus, 1995). Public places,


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friends, and relatives have also been utilized for years by families and the court to provide supervised visitation.

Providing Equal Regard for the Safety of Battered Women and Children by Challenging the Notion of Neutrality
The significance of Ellen Pence speaking, writing, and drafting manuals on incorporating the equal regard of safety for battered women and their children cannot be understated. The concept of equal regard comes from the Safe Havens Guiding Principles (Office on Violence Against Women, 2007). Ellen’s incorporation and thinking about the application of this principle have moved supervised visitation centers across the country to reconsider all of their agency practices. Because of her written work, trainings, and critical analysis, centers have changed how they orient people to services, how they document and record what occurred at the center, how a center links battered women to advocates, and how a visitation center is linked to the coordinated community response of its community. Technical assistance provided by Praxis International with Ellen’s leadership sought to change many basic tenets of supervised visitation centers in cases of domestic violence. One basic tenet was the notion of “neutrality” in the context of supervised visitation. Ellen Pence questioned supervised visitation centers about what they meant when they used the term neutrality and how it was implemented in practice. In her publication, On Safety’s Side: Protecting Those Vulnerable to Violence: Challenges to Notions of Neutrality in Supervised Visitation Centers, Ellen writes with Martha McMahon, Visitation centers have argued that “putting kids first” requires neutrality in the “conflict” between the parents. But this position frequently puts adult victims of domestic violence in unnecessary competition with their children for protection. This is harmful and not the intended outcome of centers adopting a stance of neutrality. Those in the field who raise these questions are not partisan, biased against men, or more caring about women than they are about children. However, to be serious about protecting children and adult victims of ongoing abuse from the different kinds of harm caused by domestic violence, an examination of visitation centers’ practices of neutrality is called for. (Pence & McMahon, 2008, p. 2) Ellen sought to get rid of the term neutrality altogether and replace it with fair and impartial in the supervised visitation field, particularly in cases of domestic violence. She saw that in cases of domestic violence, there had to be an equal regard for the safety of battered women and their children. Supervised visitation centers primarily saw their role as only to address the safety of the children. With her leadership, supervised visitation centers began to account for battering in their practices. Most centers in their practice were still only prioritizing the safety of the children because they wanted to be seen by the parents and the court as “neutral” regarding the “parental conflict.” Ellen asked the supervised

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visitation field important questions such as “Was it possible to remain neutral and keep people safe?” and “How does discounting the violence by the batterer against the woman keep the child safe?” She fundamentally changed the way supervised visitation services were provided by making it clear that in families where there is a history of domestic violence, centers should never be neutral about the violence between the adults. The role of the center was to determine who needed protection from whom and provide the best possible options and services to the individuals vulnerable to abuse. She showed centers that when they were neutral in the “conflict” between the parents, they were taking a stand with the abuser. Treating both parents the same discounts the imbalance in power in the relationship. When couples separate after battering has occurred, they cannot be placed on the same plane as “high-conflict” families. High-conflict families implies that there were mutual roles and comparable positions and power in the relationship. Ellen continually brought to the forefront of the supervised visitation field that in cases of battering, children and the victim require protection from ongoing exposure to abuse from supervised visitation service providers. She has developed practices and organizational design to account for the equal regard for the safety of children and battered women. Early on, centers thought that as long as they had separate entrances and waiting rooms, that was all they needed (Sadusky, 2008). Ellen Pence recognized that consideration of safety for battered women got lost under the prevailing notion of neutrality in supervised visitation. Providing a neutral space with separate entrances and exits would not be enough to protect battered women from ongoing coercion, violence, and control that characterized battering (Sadusky, 2008). Many supervised visitation centers hid behind the notion of “neutrality.” Ellen questioned the standards and practices of most supervised visitation centers and the supervised visitation network in their definition and practical application of neutrality. Ellen challenged Safe Havens grantees to bring the realities of what battered women needed from visitation centers and compare that to the already existing visitation services and reveal the gaps between the two. Once the gaps were revealed, it was time to recreate policies, practices, and centers that closed the gaps, ultimately creating centers that had equal regard for battered women and their children. Many supervised visitation centers also took a strong stance behind the notion of “neutrality” because they were concerned that the court would not refer families to them if they did not include neutrality in their language and practice. Centers were concerned about their ongoing relationships with the court because they often believed that if they weren’t seen as neutral they would be seen as “advocating.” Ellen challenged the thinking of supervised visitation centers in terms of neutrality by analyzing what courts really wanted. Through numerous interviews and focus groups with judges and work in concert with the NCJFCJ, what courts wanted was reliable, independent, and relevant information. They wanted “impartial” information, meaning that the persons providing the information were not tied to any of the parties by relationship personally, financially, or otherwise. Ellen challenged supervised visitation centers to not use the term parental conflict when describing the relationship between the parents or the ensuing court battle. She challenged supervised visitation centers to centralize the violence and name the battering when it was occurring and the reason for the referral.


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At the first Safe Havens orientation meeting of all grantees in 2003, Ellen Pence stood in the front of the room of grantees and asked the group to talk about what each of the supervised visitation centers was documenting and reporting to the courts and other referral agencies. Various grantees shared what they documented and why. The answers ranged from “We document everything” and “We document a summary of what happened” to “Because that is the way we have always done things” and “That is what the courts expect from us.” Ellen questioned each grantee about their documentation practices. In particular she asked, “How many of you are documenting information that has to do with the reason people were referred to the center?” The room went silent. From the very first meeting of Safe Havens grantees, Ellen challenged grantees to recognize the implications of what centers were documenting. She illustrated to all grantees that if they are documenting that the father showed up, played monopoly, and then went home, they may be compromising victim safety by stripping cases of their contexts. If the context of why the father was referred to the center is missing from the documentation, it doesn’t centralize the safety of the battered woman and the children, and the violence is minimized. If the father who shows up and plays monopoly with his children every week was referred because he held a gun to his wife’s head and that information is not carried into the documentation of the visits, it may appear that he poses no risk to his children or his ex-partner. Ellen articulated very clearly to the group that common documentation practices that centers saw as objective and neutral were anything but. The documentation practices of many centers presented many safety problems. She challenged supervised visitation centers to make the safety needs of battered women and children visible to the court in their documentation and reporting practices. The way in which Ellen framed the issue of documentation fundamentally challenged every aspect of the intersection of supervised visitation and domestic violence. She challenged centers to consider their role in cases of domestic violence, their relationship to the courts, and their role in undoing the harm. Through her understanding and vast knowledge of sociology and institutional ethnography, Ellen clearly articulated and showed how the power of text in any real person’s case file can mislead the readers. Through lecture, roundtable discussions, and case examples she was able to show grantees, funders, and other technical assistance providers how often the observation documentation of supervised visitation centers indicated someone’s ability to care for and interact with children in a supervised setting but had no bearing on visitation in the context of battering and risks posed to children and adult victims. She also challenged terms used in documentation such as normal or appropriate and how these terms impose certain cultural points of view of what it means to be normal or appropriate. Ellen’s work in the supervised visitation field influenced the practice of observation notes to always account for the reason for the referral in each report and to incorporate minimal documentation practices.

Designing a Helping Organization That Centralizes Safety Versus a Policing Organization
Ellen’s work in the supervised visitation and domestic violence field fundamentally changed how safety was defined in the work of centers. Many supervised visitation centers

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would justify their numerous rules and guidelines because they would say it was the “safe” thing to do. Ellen asked supervised visitation centers to examine their program design and to ask themselves if what they were doing was designed to meet the administrative functions of the agency or to meet the needs of the people being served. Often, “safety” was used as a “guise” to meet the needs of the agency. For example, many centers will not allow noncustodial parents to bring gifts to the center. By not allowing gift-giving at supervised visitation, centers don’t have to address the potential of a noncustodial parent bringing an “inappropriate” gift or sending a message to the custodial parent in the gift. This example was an illustration that Ellen used to show centers what we don’t allow for with the people we serve when we “police” them. She asked centers to address our own values, bias, judgments, and cultural norms about gift giving. Ellen sought to move supervised visitation centers away from becoming excessively “policing” to creating an atmosphere that accounted for individuality, respect, diversity, culture, and safety. Traditionally, supervised visitation centers found their role to be to provide safety within the confines of the structure of the supervised visitation center walls for the 1 to 2 hr that services were provided per week. While working with Shelia Hankins of the State of Michigan Demonstration Project, Ellen changed the discourse on safety in the supervised visitation field by talking about protecting battered women and their children by working for safety and undoing the harm violence does beyond the 2-hr visit. Ellen, along with the demonstration initiative of the Safe Havens grant program, defined and looked at safety over three distinct time periods (Sadusky, 2008, p. 16): 1. Safety during the exchange or actual visit (2+ hours), 2. Safety during the 2 years following a separation (2+ years), and 3. Safety on a permanent basis (20+ years). Ellen’s expertise and history with working with men who batter provided for an understanding of men who batter in a way that many supervised visitation center staff did not have. Many supervised visitation staff members have expressed frustration with and fear of men who batter. It was their fear of men who batter that often motivated them to design a visitation center that “policed” men’s actions. Ellen talked about men who batter and described engaging with men by incorporating compassion with accountability. No other trainer or leader in supervised visitation has talked about and described doing this like she has. Ellen taught visitation centers how to avoid being a punitive place or an excessively policing environment while acknowledging men’s potential danger. Ellen’s candor and openness in working with staff about their own issues with men who batter provided a space for staff to have a candid conversation about their fears and how they stood in the way of providing men who batter with courtesy and respect. Her work encourages us all to explore our own attitudes and beliefs about working with men who batter and provide support and training to address it in an ongoing way. She is one of the foremost leaders in addressing men who batter as people with whom supervised visitation centers can and should engage. Ellen has been one of the only leaders in the supervised visitation field with expansive expertise in working with men


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who batter. She is highly skilled in being vigilant about the safety of battered women and their children while also establishing and maintaining a respectful relationship with men who batter. Practitioners across the United States have been positively influenced by Ellen’s skill with men who batter. By developing as a helping institution, supervised visitation centers did not have to work directly with men who batter to challenge their beliefs but could create an atmosphere that limited their inclination to harm the women and children. When centers operate with the goal of “policing” negative behavior, it is less likely that respect, communication, and nonviolence will occur between the staff and the abuser. Ellen transformed how supervised visitation centers met with people when they came to the center by creating a framework for “orientations” to the program as opposed to conducting intakes. Before Ellen’s influence, many centers were using their intake time to inform parents about the rules and policies of the center, answer any questions, and gather demographic information. Ellen pushed for a fundamental shift in thinking and practice in this regard. She encouraged grantees to look at how an intake could be used as a way for centers to determine if one parent needed protection from the other and, if so, which parent and what kind of protection, and how the center could accommodate the need. This shift was unsettling to many supervised visitation centers. Many grantees felt that if they approached services this way, they would be advocating for one side over the other and this was not fair. But some grantees realized that there was indeed a way to create services that were focused on victim safety and still provide the abusive partner with fair and respectful services. Ellen proposed that if centers engaged more with the people whom they served, this ultimately would lead to centers providing more protection to those vulnerable to abuse. Based on her guidance, there was a growing understanding and shift in thinking that allowed centers to use the unique opportunity they had to help victims of battering. For centers, it is much easier for them to create a space where people show up and all they do is document what occurred. This kind of relationship is simpler for centers. Through ongoing examination of what a helping organization could look like, Ellen created a vision for a supervised visitation center that can build relationships with people that account for the complexities of battering and also be a place that can provide people with what they need. She also always clearly articulated that supervised visitation centers should never lump all men who batter into a single category. Distinguishing the danger and safety that each man who batters poses to his partner and children is part of the work of the supervised visitation center.

Ellen Pence possesses both political wisdom and analytical insight into what moves people and organizations to change. Over the past 30+ years, she has relentlessly advocated on behalf of battered women and their children. She has carried the voices of many battered women and their children into the everyday work and theory that drives the domestic violence field and now the supervised visitation field. Without Ellen, so many opportunities to critically examine the way in which we organize ourselves to do this important work of ending violence against women would be lost.

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Ellen has the capacity to analyze the lived experiences of battered women in relation to the social structures and institutions that are the foundation of support for violence against women. People with this level of vision and insight are rare. She is charismatic enough to get people to listen to her and persistent enough not to give up in the face of resistance. She is a leader who has the ability to lighten the very dark parts of our cultural fabric. Ellen orchestrated a social movement to end violence against women in the supervised visitation field. Ellen, as a leader, pushes us as a collective to examine, from every angle, what and how violence against women is supported and what it will take for it to no longer be the norm.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or publication of this article.

The authors received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.

Carlson, B. E. (2000). Children exposed to intimate partner violence: Research findings and implications for intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1, 321-342. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. (1995). Custody and visitation decisionmaking when there are allegations of domestic violence. Reno, NV: Author. Office on Violence Against Women. (2007). Guiding principles: Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program. Retrieved July 9, 2010, from http://www.ovw Pence, E., & McMahon, M. (2008). On safety’s side: Protecting those vulnerable to violence: Challenges to notions of neutrality in supervised visitation centers. Duluth, MN: Praxis International. Available from Sadusky, J. (2008). Building safety, Repairing harm: Lessons and discoveries from the Office on Violence Against Women’s Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program—Demonstration initiative. Available from Saunders, D. G. (1998). Child custody and visitation decisions in domestic violence cases: Legal trends, research findings and recommendations. Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet, A Project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence/Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Available from Sheeran, M., & Hampton, S. (1999). Supervised visitation in cases of domestic violence. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 50(2), 13-25. Straus, R. (1995). Supervised visitation and family violence. Family Law Quarterly, 29, 229-252.

Melissa Scaia, MPA, is the executive director of Advocates for Family Peace (AFFP) in northern Minnesota. She is a consultant for Praxis International and serves as a faculty member for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. She has also conducted training for the Battered Women’s Justice Project, Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Program, and the


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National Network to End Domestic Violence. She wrote her master’s thesis on the effects of domestic violence on children and wrote her doctoral dissertation proposal to address supervised visitation services for battered women. She recently cowrote a curriculum titled “Addressing Fatherhood With Men Who Batter.” She is also a wife, mother of two young children, and a United States Figure Skating Association instructor. Laura Connelly has worked to end domestic violence for the past 10 years through volunteer work and direct client services. She is currently the assistant director at AFFP, a private, nonprofit organization located in rural northern Minnesota. AFFP’s mission is to support individuals to live violence-free lives, educate the community about domestic violence, work for social change through policy and practice, and promote respect and acceptance. She cofacilitates groups for men who batter, advocates for victims of domestic violence, and oversees AFFP’s supervised visitation and exchange center. She is the coauthor of a curriculum for working with abusive men in their role as fathers.

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