Neutral ground for estranged parents

Mount Airy church opens child transfer center

April 16, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

At the crossroads of four counties and just off an interstate highway, Mount Airy is sometimes a convenient spot for estranged parents to meet at the beginning or end of a weekend when children are going from one household to the other. But while the neutral setting of a fast-food parking lot can reduce the chances of a volatile encounter, it doesn't always eliminate the tension.

"I have heard the words and seen the gestures between angry parents," said Maryland State Police Sgt. Palmer Grotte, head of the town's resident trooper force. "You see these kids moving from one vehicle to another carrying suitcases, and you know they aren't returning from day camp."

Now, a Mount Airy church is taking the idea of parents meeting each other halfway a step further. St. James Episcopal Church has opened a "child access transfer center" designed to provide parents a safe place to hand off their children under the supervision of trained monitors.

"A church is the logical site for people in conflict," said Robin Winkler-Pickett, the center's on-site director. "We will be there to help the child avoid confrontations between parents. It may be difficult for parents at first, but this activity will be much healthier for the child in the long run."

The Mount Airy center joins a number of church and community organizations with programs that provide an alternative to stressful encounters on doorsteps or inside broken homes.

"So many families come to us at their wits' end," said Bobbi E. Smith, coordinator of a program offered in Westminster by Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland. "They have exchanged at malls and McDonald's, but neither provides safety and there are still confrontations. Some parents just can't get along long enough to exchange their child."

Children are often caught in the middle of parental conflicts, never more so than when they move from one residence to another, said David L. Levy, co-founder and president of the Children's Rights Council, an international nonprofit organization that oversees 27 child transfer centers across the nation.

"Parents are dealing with disappointment, anger, frustration and often not thinking about their kids or understanding their children's needs," said Levy.

For about a year, Wayne Eley, 34, has relied on a transfer center at a Hyattsville church that is run by the children's council to meet his two young daughters. He picks up the children Friday evenings at the center and takes them to school Monday morning.

"I would recommend these centers because they do everything they can to help smooth things over, and they can really help if you are having problems seeing your kids," said Eley, a financial analyst who lives in Baltimore. "Nobody wants to have children involved in conflicts between ex-spouses. There are monitors at the centers who will step right in if anyone is acting in an inappropriate way."

At Providence Baptist Church in West Baltimore, eight volunteer monitors helped 15 families last year.

Parents are assigned arrival times -- about 15 minutes apart -- and adjacent waiting rooms, stocked with books and toys for the children. The parent with the children leaves first and the remaining parent waits several minutes to depart.

Providence Baptist, like many other centers, also handles court-ordered supervision. One toddler comes to the center every other week to spend time with her mother.

"For now, it is the only time they have together, and that little girl just lights up when she sees her mommy," said Stacy Rodgers, who monitors the site. "We are really filling a gap for many children who otherwise would not have access to their father or their mother."

A relationship with both parents is vital to the child's development, said Dr. Rob Snow, a psychotherapist who often works with divorcing couples. In Baltimore County, about 200 divorces are filed each month, Snow said.

"About 30 of those on average are highly conflicted with partners battling [over] who will pick up the children and where," Snow said. "Access centers ease those conflicts."

But, Snow said, referrals can be difficult to get with courts jammed and judges busy. Many do not know about the centers and they instruct parents to meet at a public place. The Mount Airy group has met with Carroll judges and attorneys to make them aware of the service. They also have left fliers at the Westminster center.

Powel B. Welliver, family law administrator for Carroll County's Circuit Court, said the Mount Airy location is ideal and the program there seems to be sound. It might also mean less travel time for those who use the center in Westminster where Smith is the coordinator. That center asks each parent to pay an initial $50 entry fee and $30 per quarter for the service, with grant money made available to those who cannot afford the service.

Sun staff writer Sandy Alexander contributed to this article.

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