A local program that offers supervised visitation and child exchanges free from parental conflict is ending abruptly because it lost federal funding.

The Family Exchange Program launched in 2003 at The Parenting Place, a La Crosse nonprofit organization, as a safe place for parents who have separated to pick up and drop off children. Staff escort children from one parent to the other to avoid violating no-contact and restraining orders.

“There’s no fighting,” said Alyson Ilstrup, who oversees the program. “It keeps kids out of the middle of the conflict.”

A federal grant allowed the program to expand in 2008 to fund staff to supervise visits between children and their noncustodial parent. Last year, staff oversaw 637 visits and 645 exchanges for 82 children, Ilstrup said.

“We used to serve five to 10 families but it grew to 35 to 40, with a wait list,” she said.

A federal grant from the Office of Violence Against Women covered the program’s annual $125,000 operating cost. The Parenting Place learned late last week that it hadn’t won the three-year competitive grant. No other organization in La Crosse County offers safe child exchanges and only one counseling company offers supervised visits on a limited basis.

Family Court Commissioner Elizabeth Wright said she ordered the program for parents in high-conflict divorces or domestic abuse situations or for absent parents who sought reunification with their children.

“It’s fully integrated into the court system,” she said. “I am so sad the program is being dismantled for financial reasons.”

The Parenting Place staff is in the process of contacting participating families and helping with new arrangements. The grant funding is depleted and the program is running on reserve funds until it ends in the coming weeks.

“Families are nervous and many have the same questions: ‘What’s our next option? Where do we go?’” Ilstrup said. “We’re devastated. It’s a huge loss to our community.”

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Police and courts reporter

Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or 608-791-8224.

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