Officials Seek Safe Sites to Swap Custody

Times Staff Writer

Four months after a boy watched his father fatally stab his mother, then kill himself, justice agency officials in Los Angeles County are searching for a safe place for children to begin and end visits with parents engaged in heated custody disputes.

The parents of the 6-year-old died on a Saturday morning in late September during a court-ordered custody transfer in front of Santa Monica City Hall. A domestic violence counselor there to supervise the transfer also witnessed the killings.

"There are many families in Los Angeles County where the parent conflict is so high that they cannot peacefully exchange custody between them," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Aviva K. Bobb, who supervises the court's family law departments. "There is a major need for a place where parents can exchange their children and there is professional supervision."

To reduce potentially violent confrontations, family court judges now order some parents to swap children for visitations in public places, like fast-food restaurants, or, in the most risky cases, at police stations. But the exchanges are unsupervised and can lead to explosive encounters between estranged parents in front of their children.

The emotional damage to children who witness such conflict is well documented, according to court officials. The children suffer from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem and perform poorly in school.

Officials want to protect children -- many of whose parents are violent toward each other but not toward their children. If there is no threat of harm to the children, Bobb said, they should spend time with both parents.

To facilitate peaceful exchanges, the court wants to establish a place where parents can drop off and pick up their children for court-ordered visitation under the watchful eye of professional mediators and within earshot of law enforcement officers.

Court and county officials are working with law enforcement to locate space in a Los Angeles police station in the San Fernando Valley and a sheriff's substation in the San Gabriel Valley for two free court-sponsored child custody exchange centers.

The Superior Court and county Judicial Procedures Commission are asking county supervisors Tuesday to authorize an application for a $100,000 federal grant to pay for a pilot program. Officials say they can later apply for ongoing state funding.

Under the proposal, one or two trained counselors will staff the center at peak times for child custody exchanges: Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. They will have access to the latest child custody orders.

Officials hope to expand the program eventually. "In my opinion, I think we need 30 centers around the county," said Carol L. Rose, head of the Judicial Procedures Commission. "But we keep struggling for funds."

Currently there are seven centers operating under contract with Los Angeles County courts that, for fees ranging from $10 to $35 per exchange, will supervise the transfer of children from one parent to another. But the fees, especially for weekly visitations, quickly add up to hundreds of dollars a year for families, many of whom cannot afford it.

The proposed centers will be free and housed at police and sheriff's stations that are open around the clock and provide added security for the transactions, said Janet DuVal, the court's family law administrator.

Police stations are already being used by thousands of parents each week as informal meeting places, according to law enforcement officials.

When Lt. Tom Martin was watch commander in the late 1990s at the sheriff's Lost Hills substation in Agoura, he and his staff watched as parents regularly exchanged children in their lobby -- a process that often led to screaming matches and sometimes violence, he said.

"Just because they are in a sheriff's lobby doesn't mean they will act appropriately," said Martin, a member of the Judicial Procedures Commission panel overseeing the project. "Remember, divorces are very emotional."

Although the deputies have no formal role in the child exchange, they must mediate parental disputes that occur in their presence without much information about the domestic situation and even less about the current child custody order.

The most common complaint was that one parent arrived late to the designated pickup location in violation of the child custody order, Martin said. In many instances, outraged parents would demand that deputies write incident reports to document the violations, including tardiness, for the court.

Bobb said it is not the deputies' purpose "to sit there and watch people exchange their kids and scream and yell at each other." She endorsed the proposal for centers staffed by professional mediators. Ideally, she said, the child exchange could take place without any personal interaction between the parents.

The law enforcement sites are expected to reduce the incidents of domestic violence. But Bobb said a site didn't help the 21-year-old Santa Clarita mother stabbed to death in September. She was on her way to the police station to transfer her son for a court-ordered visitation when the 27-year-old father ambushed and killed her.

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