With mostly bare walls and empty rooms, it doesn't look like much now but the Department of Human Services is hoping its new Building Bridges visitation center will be just like home, or close to it.
Building Bridges is expected to be fully operational early next year in a building that was once a group home for girls.
Planners hope the center will give parents with children in foster care a more homelike setting for visits.
DHS Area III Director Debbie Clour said the center will pay dividends over the long run.
"It will give parents a chance to see their children in a more relaxed setting," Clour said. "The goal is to get these families reunified faster and more safely."
Dawn Ellis and her fiance, Mark King, know the pain of having a child removed from their
The couple's 4-month-old son was placed in foster care in July after the Department of Human Services determined they weren't providing adequate medical care.
King and Ellis dispute some of the specifics but said they are moving toward a Feb. 19 reunification date, visiting their son as often as possible.
They said those visits carry them through the rough times.
Parents whose children are in foster care often must visit their children at a DHS office or a restaurant. That's not always conducive to family
Ellis and King can see the value of a place like Building Bridges. They are now allowed supervised in-home visits, but before they reached that point the visits were in a sterile office setting.
"That's hard because you're in a little room in an office with someone watching you through a mirror," King said. "I think what they're going to be doing sounds like it will be a more natural atmosphere, a lot more like home and that's something that would have benefited us."
DHS will only refer nonviolent cases to Building Bridges, Clour said. And there will be some supervision through video cameras. There will be four visitation rooms equipped with a table and chairs, furniture, toys and games. Parents also will be taught skills to better take care of their children.
The single-story brick building across from the State Department of Mental Health at 1200 NE 13 will undergo a modest remodeling of less than $10,000 before opening.
Clour also has had other area charities step forward to donate toys and other household items.
A full-time staffer will be hired as well as several case aides to help with transportation. Building Bridges will be open Monday through Friday, and sometimes on weekends.
"This is going to help us reduce the number of kids in foster care in the long term," Clour said.
"Currently the length of stay is longer in Oklahoma County than it is in Tulsa County, and we want that to change."
Even with the building already in place and the budget for the remodel secured, it's still a substantial project.
The initial idea came from a graduate student working at DHS who wrote a thesis paper on visitation in the spring. Since then it's been a whirlwind of meetings and planning.
"It's a pretty huge undertaking," Assistant DHS County Director Gene Gissandaner said.
"When we looked around the nation there aren't a lot of places like this out there. The ones that do exist are geared more toward divorcing families. But the reward is huge because you're helping families come together while working toward permanent unification."
And that's better for everyone involved, including taxpayers and the families themselves.
"The long-term benefits include reducing the costs of foster care and reduced trauma for the children," Clour said.
"Having them back with their loved ones is important because the longer they are away, the greater the risk for long-term behavior