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Transfer of children made safer

February 03, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

Tiffany Reiff vividly recalls the case of a 3-year-old boy caught in the middle of a battle that erupted between his parents last year.

No longer living together, they had agreed to meet at a local McDonald's so he could go on a visit with the noncustodial parent. But resentments surfaced and a fight broke out in the parking lot, leaving the wide-eyed toddler wondering why.

"A little kid doesn't know what's going on," Reiff said. "He just wants to see his mommy and his daddy."

Now Reiff, who serves as family services coordinator for the Washington County Circuit Court, has helped bring a new service to Hagerstown designed to help parents avoid such scenes.

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The Safe Haven Child Transfer Center is now operating from First Christian Church on Potomac Avenue. Open every other weekend, the center allows parents to exchange their children for weekend visits in a neutral, monitored location.

Four couples from the church have agreed to monitor the center, center Director Fran Shaffer said. Two couples will be present whenever the center is open, she said. One couple will be inside and the other will monitor the parking lot.

"The first four I asked accepted," she said, and each received specialized training. Their service is voluntary.

Parents are separated during the transfer, Shaffer said, but no child is left alone while waiting for another parent to show up. The parent dropping the child off doesn't leave until the other parent is identified.

The center is one of eight now operating in Maryland, and is the farthest west. Reiff began working to get a center in Hagerstown last February after Alfred Ellis, director of child access services for the Children's Rights Council, wrote to her about the program. She then met with circuit judges to bring them on board while Ellis scouted churches for an appropriate location.

The circuit and district courts will refer parents to the program to help ease the stresses of family breakups. Other agencies will make referrals as well, she said.

But parents don't have to have a referral to use the service. It's free and available to everyone, Reiff said.

Parents do need to register their children by noon on the Friday they first plan to use the center. Parents may register their children by contacting Kim Dudley at 301-791-4412.

While the church receives no funding for the program, the Children's Rights Council has provided supplemental insurance, Shaffer said. First Christian is the only church participating now, she added, but if the program grows, more churches and volunteers may be needed.

The center is open every other weekend from 7 to 8 p.m. Fridays and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sundays.

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