Balto. Co. Visitation Center allows families to re-engage

Center located in former Almshouse in Cockeysville

November 18, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

When budget cuts led to the closing of its two visitation centers that facilitated court-ordered meetings for families in crisis, Baltimore County opted for one center at a new, central location in Cockeysville.

The county, which until recently maintained centers at opposite sides of the Beltway, provides families with a safe, supervised place to get together. Though officials acknowledge that some family members may now have to travel farther for what can be emotional visits, they say they are offering a centrally located, welcoming space at the new Baltimore County Visitation Center on Van Buren Lane.

The visits are most often court-ordered. When a judge orders a supervised visitation in a contested custody case or for an abusive or drug-addicted parent, families find a neutral location at the center, which is an extension of the Circuit Court for Baltimore County's Office of Family Support Services.

"Parents have the right to visit their children, unless there is no safe way to accomplish this," said Mark Urbanik, family services coordinator.

The center has taken over the second floor of the Almshouse, an imposing stone structure built in 1872.

"This is all for families with child-access issues," said Urbanik, who has run the visitation program for nearly a decade. "We have had to change locations over and over. This is the first time we have had an entire space dedicated to us."

The center shares the building that overlooks the York Road corridor with the Baltimore County Historical Society, but the agencies are completely separate. The newly renovated space, which officials will dedicate today, also allows estranged spouses to use the center as a location to exchange sons or daughters between households.

The center has a place entirely its own for the first time since it was founded in 2004. Staff no longer have to "set up" rooms for use. Playthings are not stored away, and an office affords staff access to any necessary information or equipment, he said.

A succession of child-friendly, sunlit rooms give noncustodial parents a place to connect and be engaged with their children for at least one hour a week, sometimes two hours. Bright red shelves filled with toys, games and books line the soft gray walls of one family room, and comfortable seating simulates a typical household den. Eventually, organizers hope to build a playground on the spacious grounds.

The service agency previously ran sites in Randallstown and Rosedale. The Almshouse, once a home for the county's poorest and often sickest residents, offered an appropriate setting and room to expand.

The county set to work refurbishing the second floor of the stately home, built from stone quarried onsite.

"Essentially, we ticked everyone off with the move here, but the change of location is working," said Urbanik, who has supervised the center since it opened last month. "We now have a larger spot and can serve almost the same number of people."

The center is open for two evening shifts on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. About 1,000 visits will occur under its roof during the course of a year, he said. Last year more than 1,000 visits and 100 exchanges took place at the two previous centers. Parents must obtain a valid court order for a visitation or a supervised exchange. No adult can enter the premises without a photo ID. Security guards also maintain a list of who will be arriving and when.

Ellen Hare, an attorney who volunteers with the Protective Order Advocacy Representation Project, helps clients obtain restraining orders and will accompany them to court hearings. She works primarily with victims of domestic violence. She said she is all too familiar with potentially dangerous situations for an abused spouse and with how frightened a child can become of his or her own parent.

A safe space that feels welcoming to children and avoids face-to-face encounters between estranged parents is essential to family well being, she said.

"The visitation center provides a safe environment and a comfortable place for a child to visit a parent," she said. "I am hearing the word 'comfortable' about this site, and I didn't hear other sites described like that."

Often, a supervised center is the only option for a parent to see a child, especially when there is a history of violence, mental health issues, incarceration or addiction.

"These families represent only a small percentage of our caseload, but all of them come with their own nightmares," Urbanik said.

Sometimes, the visit comes after a parent's long absence and can be frightening for the child. Some meetings are with children in foster care in the hopes of an eventual reunion with their biological parents. Those families have access to the center kitchen and dining area, and are encouraged to have meals, even birthday parties, there.

"This can be a good place to start to rebuild with your child," Hare said.

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