Families First: Seibel Center celebrates 10th anniversary advocating for kids and families

Published 8:44 am Saturday, August 25, 2018

Friday afternoon was a celebration of the Michael H. Seibel Family Visitation and Exchange Center’s decade-long service to the Austin community, offering safe spaces where the exchange and visitation of children by and between custodial and non-custodial parents take place that are monitored and safety is maintained for all participants.

Before the center, families would have to conduct exchanges and visits at the police department parking lots, or even at fast food places, where children and parents would be exposed to embarrassment and scrutiny.

However, the work of the Seibel Center looked to change all of that.

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“It’s such a great community asset,” said Executive Director Gema Alvarado. “We advocate for the child, and never force visitations and remove the child from the conflict. They are here for safety and security.”

The center focuses on providing supervised visitation and safe exchange services that centralize around safety and providing equal regard for adult and child victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, child abuse and stalking.

There weren’t many places that were specifically used for exchanges or monitored visitations, not even in the country. Ron Howard, a supervision monitor for the center since it opened in 2008, recalled the lack of places that allowed for safe environments for parents and their children. Most likely because of funding issues and inability to sustain long term, according to Howard.

“I’m glad that it’s still going strong,” he said. “Lots of people don’t know about the Seibel Center. That’s probably a good thing even. This is a problem that’s taken off the table and has been addressed. The cost factor is not an easy thing to keep a center like this to keep going, but the need is there.”

Gema Alvarado, executive director of the Seibel Center and Ron Howard, a supervision monitor, talk about the good the Seibel Center have done over the past 10 years. Eric Johnson/photdoesk@austindailyherald.com

That need was shown in the sheer numbers. Just in 2017, the Seibel Center served 296 clients, conducted 101 orientations, arranged 893 visitations and made 569 exchanges, which culminated in a total of 29,025 service hours that were worked. From those 296 clients, 140 were children and 156 were parents and caregivers, according to data provided by the center.

From the 2018 survey that was given to 32 households, 72 percent of parents stated that the Seibel Center had positively impacted the relationship between them and their children. About 81 percent of parents stated that utilizing the center had decreased conflict with the other parent. About 97 percent of parents stated that they felt safe while at the center and believed their children felt the same way. Around 91 percent of parents would refer others to utilize the Seibel Center, and 97 percent shared that the Seibel team was “friendly, courteous and respectful.”

Despite only having worked at the center for five years, Alvarado recounted how much changed within the 10 years since the center first serviced the community. Now, the facility operates with an 11-member board, 10 supervising monitors, one coordinator and one director (herself).

There are plans in the works to continue renovating the building so that there are additional educational opportunities that could be provided to children in the future.

“Just being here five years, I can say I have never been as passionate about anything else,” Alvarado expressed. “We’re going to keep advocating for kids.”

‘He believed in second chances’

Waving outside the Parent Resource Center is the banner — designed by Kecia Freed — for the Seibel Center, which represents a child in the center of a crossroads that come together. The center was a place to many families that symbolized watchfulness and security that the late honorable Judge Michael Seibel displayed in his professionalism and commitment to children.

A plaque was left out, memorializing Judge Michael H. Seibel which the Seibel Center is named after. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Those who are from Austin know of the center’s namesake, who died at 49 after battling a long fight against cancer on June 16, 2000. Some who worked closely with Seibel remembered his empathy and compassion toward families and their children. Aleta Christopherson, president of the Parenting Resources Center Board, had worked as Seibel’s court reporter and recounted her working relationship with the judge.

“Judge Seibel was always such a bright spot in the courtroom, “ Christopherson said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and had a good rapport with kids. He was so knowledgeable, and patient. He was a great advocate for parents and their kids.”

Visiting the center was the late Seibel’s family: his daughter Megan Larison, wife Linda Seibel and mother-in-law Dolores Borgstrom, all of whom were amazed by the work that was conducted through the center that was named after Michael, which they felt was a direct reflection of who Michael was and what he believed in. Two of Larison’s siblings, Amanda Dettmann and David Seibel, were overseas.

There was no question, Linda said, that Michael disapproved of having families meet in unsafe environments like parking lots when they’re struggling with issues and subjecting children to the public eye in those situations.

“He believed in second chances,” Linda beamed. “He believed there was good in everyone. Sometimes, you have to dig a little deeper, but he believed good was in there.”

Linda shared that her husband never mentioned the center being created while he was still alive. However, those involved on the committees to establish it reached out to her to receive her blessing on using Michael’s name.

“My husband was private,” she said. “It was very much a surprise. He would’ve been wowed, but he wouldn’t have asked for his name to be on there. He was very much a humble person.”

People stopped by the Seibel Center Friday to celebrate 10 years of helping families. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Following her late father’s footsteps, Larison knew she was going to be in law for a career. There were stories shared about her father as a judge in town, where she didn’t “think too much about.” After unexpectedly returning to work in Austin, those memories of her dad were something that she started to take seriously, especially with the center’s creation, which she felt embodied what Michael was all about.

Now, her father’s spirit continues to live on in the center’s mission: providing families a safe place to go.

“I thought it was too good to be true almost,” Larison said. “I just hoped it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. My dad always put family first. He came to all of our athletic events and plays. We didn’t have a full appreciation of how busy he was with his work, but he was there. He was our dad. This center really reflected the priorities he had.”