Raise Up Your Voice: Keeping children safe during custody exchanges

Raise Up Your Voice

Raise Up Your Voice 2021

Raise Up Your Voice 2021

CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — Often times in domestic violence situations, kids can be caught in the middle. Not only can they see and hear things that may stay with them long past childhood, but sometimes they themselves are put in harm’s way.

The YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program offers a number of programs and services to keep domestic violence survivors, both old and young, safe — including the Angel Center for monitored parent-child visitation and exchanges.

“We recognized twenty years ago that there needs to be a safer space for exchanging children,” said Julie Haden, program director with YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program.

Oftentimes, even in public places, custody exchanges and visitations can turn heated. The goal of the monitored visitation and exchange center is to keep kids safe.

“We hear almost every week in family court about disturbances in the public or at people’s homes when there has been an attempted child exchange where things go wrong,” explained Pamela Lorensen, a domestic violence advocate in Kanawha County.

The center aims to limit that by having one parent or guardian park on one side of the building and the other on the other side. A staff member picks up the child, signs them in, and then walks them to the other end of the building to meet that parent or guardian. They also have a number of child-friendly rooms available for monitored visitations.

The use of the center can be court-ordered and self-referred and it’s absolutely free of charge. Lorensen says many of the people who were initially ordered to use the facility continue to come back.

“They continue coming here because they feel like it’s a safe place,” said Lorensen.

According to the YWCA, last year a total of 57 families used the center with 443 visits and 395 exchanges taking place. They say those numbers are lower because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this center has saved lives,” added former Kanawha County family court judge Mike Kelly.

Kelly has seen firsthand the impact that domestic violence at home can have on a child. According to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships.

Judge Kelly was instrumental in the Domestic Violence Court pilot program and was one of the pioneers in using Visitation & Exchange programs to protect survivors. Not only does it help parents and children stay safe, but it’s also proven to be an invaluable tool for family court judges, who get a report for each case that uses the center.

“(We know) who showed up, who didn’t, who acted out, who was cooperative. It gives us the opportunity to then look at that case again and see do we need to make some changes for a child’s safety or if it’s working the way it is,” explained Kelly.

He added, “This center made my job that much easier… I took personal responsibility for each child if I had their case. I wanted to see them grow up happy and alive and this was an invaluable tool to achieve that goal.”

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