Boston Globe

Saturday, September 4, 1999

On neutral ground

Centers give parents a safe space to visit children

By Jordana Hart,
Globe Staff

There was only one place where Edmund Nelson could see his son. It was a single room, decorated in bright, happy colors, like a family room, with toys and games strewn about.

But it wasn't a family room, and Nelson wasn't part of a happy family. A court, worried that Nelson might become abusive to his former girlfriend, insisted that he see his son only for an hour each week at a family visiting center, paying $40 for that privilege.

Nelson denies that he would ever become abusive, and since the six weeks of visits at the center in 1998 he has had unsupervised visits with his son.

Still, in the often acrimonious world of divorce and breakups, where child custody and visitations can spur vicious fights, many parents like Nelson are learning that the only place they can see their children is at a visiting center that strives to offer neutral territory for warring parents.

''It is you and your child in one small room with someone just sitting and watching,'' said Nelson. ''It was very limiting and weird, especially when you haven't seen your son in a year.''

Those who operate the centers see them as positive, an alternative to simply barring contact between children and parents who are judged to be at risk of becoming violent or kidnapping children.

Nelson, for instance, said he was arrested for fighting with his former girlfriend in front of their child after she refused to leave his apartment. He said he has no criminal record, that the fight was his first, and that he and the mother should not have fought. The mother could not be reached for comment.

For six weeks, the only contact Nelson had with his son was in the Plainville visiting center. There, he met with the boy, while two or three other pairs of parents and children met elsewhere in the center.

There are 15 such centers statewide, with plans for more. They are also increasingly used as neutral exchange points, where parents pick up and drop off children for court-ordered visits. Arriving 10 or 15 minutes apart, for example, parents can avoid seeing each other.

Visitation centers are becoming so popular among family court judges, probation officers, and some lawyers and parents that certain centers, like the one run by the YWCA in Springfield, have waiting lists up to a year long. That has led to visits being cut short to accommodate other families. And with families using the centers for an average of nine to 12 months, some parents are simply never getting the chance to use the services.

''We are all using them, and there are not enough,'' said Worcester Probate and Family Court Judge Arline Rotman.

There appears to be no shortage of clients for the centers:

Last year, some 23,000 Massachusetts couples filed for divorce, with women seeking about 75 percent of them. About 65 percent of these couples have children.

The state's judges issue about 145 restraining orders a day, and the overwhelming majority are issued against men, state figures show.

Meanwhile, paternity suits against unmarried fathers have risen steadily, from 7,867 in 1990 to 14,960 in 1998, according to trial court data. In effect, more fathers are having to begin paying child support as more mothers or the Department of Revenue, which enforces child support collection, file against them.

Advocates say that men who spend time with their children are more likely to pay child support, one reason the Department of Revenue helps fund the centers.

But fathers' rights groups have complained that the centers are far from neutral, that they instead stigmatize men and make them feel like bad fathers. In about 80 percent of cases, it is fathers using the centers, according to center statistics.

''It is like the centers assume you will hurt your child,'' said Robert Russo of Quincy, who visited with his son at a center in Brockton for eight months in 1993, when his son was 7.

Massachusetts was the second state, after Minnesota, to open visitation centers, starting in Cambridge and Brockton in 1991. Using federal funds earmarked for domestic violence prevention, the state pays a portion of the centers' annual budgets with about $1 million from the state Department of Social Services and about $75,000 in federal welfare reform funds from the Department of Revenue.

Fees of up to $80 an hour, depending on a parent's income, and $15 per pickup or dropoff make up about 25 percent of the budget at the Meeting Place, a visitation center in Cambridge run by child psychologist Robert Straus, a leader in the supervised visitation movement. Other centers have similar fee structures.

Straus defended the fees, which cover operational expenses, but he insisted that no one has been turned away for not being able to pay. ''To run a program safely, there is immense additional preparation,'' Straus said. ''We have to be continually aware of what is going on with a family.''

The centers operate in day care facilities and other locations. They are generally open on evenings and weekends.

The idea behind the centers is simple: Exchanges or visits monitored by a neutral party can help reduce arguments, disputes, and violence that sometimes result when parents can't agree on visitation or when one parent is fearful of physical abuse.

Maria, a graduate student, sits in the Meeting Place living room for two hours every Saturday morning as her former husband visits upstairs with their 3-year-old son.

''My son calls [the center] Daddy's big yellow house and sees it as a place to play with his father,'' said Maria, who began using the center last December, five months after she said she fled to a battered women's shelter with her son, a backpack of diapers, and her diaries. ''It is a way to reduce stress and not have to rely on friends and relatives,'' she said.

When the centers are unavailable, judges say they routinely order parents to have visits supervised by relatives and friends or send parents to police stations and other public places so pickups and dropoffs can be made with a semblance of protection.

But those alternatives sometimes are ineffective. Selecia Orozco, who had a restraining order against her estranged husband, was allegedly stabbed by him outside the Haymarket MBTA station during rush hour last fall as she was trying to pick up her 20-month-old daughter after a court-ordered weekend visit. The husband, Franklin Orozco, also allegedly stabbed his wife's boyfriend and then tried to kill himself. The baby was unhurt. Franklin Orozco was arraigned last November on two counts of attempted murder and is being held at the Nashua Street Jail awaiting trial.

''When people first thought about visitation centers, they thought about the best interest of the child and not necessarily about the mother,'' said Lonna Davis, clinical supervisor of the domestic violence unit at the Department of Social Services. ''These centers are designed to look out for the best interest of battered women and children.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 09/04/99.

© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.