Twenty years of reuniting fractured families

Photo by Ted YoakumThe exterior of the Harmony House facility on Michigan Avenue in La Porte. The program, which offers supervised visitations between noncustodial parents and their children, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

La PORTE — The purpose of La Porte's Harmony House is stated right in its name.

For the past two decades, the leadership of the supervised visitation program, located at 1005 Michigan Ave., has helped bring fractured families back together in unison. 

On any given evening, visitors can expect to find a young child giggling away as they help their father whip up something in the kitchen. In another part of the house, they will find a young one and their mother playing with some dolls in the living room. 

All the while, trained Harmony House staff members watch on, supervising and recording the interactions between the family members.

This arrangement has allowed children to reconnect with parents — who lost custody of their son or daughter due to divorce, abuse or neglect — in a welcoming, yet secure, environment.

"To kids, it's just a fun place to visit with mom or dad," said Harmony House Director Cheryl Highsmith.

The program, a part of La Porte nonprofit Family Advocates, is celebrating 20 years of serving La Porte County families this year. 

Family Advocates CEO Karen Biernacki formed the program in 1999 after seeing the need for a safe-yet-relaxing venue for court-ordered supervised parental visits in the community. Before Harmony House, the police department would orchestrate these visits in its parking lot, Highsmith said.

In contrast, Harmony House offers a much more welcoming environment, with a living room, kitchen, sunroom and backyard. The facility provides enough space for up to three families to use at once, with the typical visit lasting between one to two hours, Highsmith said.

During these visits, Highsmith; her program coordinator, Lesley Lefeber; or one of the two other highly trained visit supervisors keep an eye on things. More than just mere note-takers, these professionals offer coaching and advice to parents, many of whom are still struggling to relearn how to care for their loved one.

"We just don't see [parents] struggling and keep on documenting — we step in and help," Highsmith said.

Divorced couples can also use Harmony House as a secure exchange point, allowing parents to drop off and pick up their child without having to cross paths.

Harmony House serves between 10 to 25 cases at one time — right now, the program is assisting 12 families, Highsmith said. The visits can span from only six months to up until the child turns 18, she said.

Given the amount of time they spend with both parents and children, the Harmony House staff members develop bonds with those they serve, Highsmith said. Their positive attitude, even amid challenging circumstances, never fails to leave a deep impression on the kids, in particular, Lefeber added. 

"We are almost like a part of the family whenever they visit," she said.

Bill Elliott, an attorney who has practiced law in the La Porte area for 40 years, is among those who have taken advantage of Harmony House's services. The man currently serves as the legal guardian of a child, who he drops off at Harmony House for weekly visits with her biological parents, he said.

Elliott, who visited Harmony House the past three years, sings the praises of the facility — its staff, in particular.

"You've got trained professionals here supervising, who dedicate their lives to these children, doing what is best for them," he said.

The attorney and foster parent also likes how Harmony House charges clients based on their level of income. The system makes it very affordable for parents struggling to make ends meet, he said.

Those interested in learning more about Harmony House or who would like to donate to the program may call 324-3385 or visit lpfamilyadvocates.com.

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