Every Thursday night, John drives to a St. Louis Park program that allows him to visit -- with constant one-on-one supervision -- his young daughter. The surveillance is ordered by the courts.

John parks his car on the left side of the building and heads to a "parenting room." A half hour later, the child's mother parks on the opposite side of the building and drops off her daughter. Mother and father never meet. Security systems watch for trouble. And the child gets to see a parent she is attached to, regardless of circumstances.

Each year, thousands of children across Minnesota participate in such "supervised visitations," a critical and sometimes controversial component in child protection and domestic violence cases. As counties press for family reunification for children in foster care, the visits play a critical role in a child's transition back home. They're also essential for women fleeing abusive relationships, whose ex-partners and husbands nonetheless have rights to visit their kids.

But there are no state standards for supervision or security for the nonprofits and individuals who oversee the visits. There's no required licensing or training, and each county handles things differently. While many rely on the special child visitation programs run by nonprofits, others enlist foster parents, family relatives or case aides who may oversee visits at city parks, libraries or even McDonald's.

Supervised visitation blasted into the public spotlight last month after a Washington man blew up his house during what was supposed to be a supervised session with his sons. "That story about the father who blew up his house led a lot of people to wonder about supervised visitation," said Linda Domholt, a vice president at Perspectives, the family services nonprofit that John goes to each week.

"There's a lot of need but not a lot of funding for this," she said. "It's time to shed some light on it."

Lynn Lewis, human services manager for Hennepin County, said the service is critical.

"The cases that we see going to court, and getting supervised visitation, are some of the toughest," she said. "It can be a convergence of issues: drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty, untreated mental illness. You put a combination of any of those together and it could be toxic for a child."

Minnesota a national leader

Minnesota was among the first states to create visitation centers, starting in the 1980s, said Carl Nordine, interim executive director of the Children's Safety Center/Genesis II for Families in St. Paul.

The St. Paul center, for example, was launched 20 years ago by a mother whose children were beaten with a two-by-four by their father during a visit, Nordine said. It now specializes in court-ordered visits for children hurt by domestic violence.

The center, like others, also can supervise telephone calls and e-mail exchanges between the child and potentially explosive parent, said Nordine, whose agency supervised 1,200 visits and 701 child "exchanges" -- or child transfers between parents-- last year.

Perspectives offers something more: a pathway for parents to "graduate" to unsupervised visits. John, who didn't want his real name used, is among parents enrolled in its "Parenting Time" program.

He arrives a half hour early for each meeting with his daughter, and sits down with the supervisor who will monitor his visit in a room filled with toys, a doll house, a kiddie kitchenette and comfy couch.

He and the supervisor go through a parenting curriculum before the sweet 2-year-old walks in.

For the next two hours, the father-daughter conversations and actions are closely observed by the note-taking supervisor. If John were to attempt to say anything inappropriate to the child, or about her mother, the supervisor would stop him.

But the visit goes without a hitch for John, who declined to say why he was there. Dad and daughter first shared a grilled cheese sandwich and soup dinner he brought. They played with Barbie, explored the doll house.

John says he's grateful to have this place to visit his daughter. He's hopeful he will get unsupervised visitation soon.

While John's story did not involve domestic violence, its victims swell the ranks at many centers.

"From a battered women's perspective, they are critical," said Shelley Johnson Cline, executive director of the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. "Having a child in a visitation center means he is not going anywhere. The abusive parent can't make any threats, can't kidnap the child and can't use it as an opportunity to put the mother in greater danger."

No standards

In spite of their important role in maintaining child safety and child-parent bonds, there are few standards for how or where visitation should be delivered in any state, said Jeff Nullet, executive director of the Supervised Visitation Network, a national network of nonprofits providing visitation services.

"There's nobody minding supervised visitation," said Nullet. "It's alarming sometimes, because anyone can provide these services."

A growing number of private individuals oversee supervised visitation, said Michelle Basham, executive director of Genesis II for Families, which supervises about 300 to 400 visits a month in the Minneapolis area. She and Nullet are concerned about the lack of training requirements, safety procedures and other standards for individual supervisors.

County budget strains also are hitting visitation programs, said Basham. Ramsey County, for example, stopped using visitation centers for most of its child protection cases several years ago because of budget cuts. It relies on foster parents and relatives to supervise most visits, said Janine Moore, director of the county's family and children's services.

In high-risk cases, the visits can take place in a county building, supervised by county staff with law enforcement on hand to intervene if needed, she said. But having a neutral, third party overseeing the visits in a more relaxed environment could benefit both the parent and child, she said.

Said Moore: The centers "are something we would love to have."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511