ST. LOUIS — In the midst of her divorce, Sarah was worried about the whole process of handing her toddler son over to her ex-husband for scheduled visits. The parents could barely be in proximity without an argument breaking out.
Now they avoid any unpleasantness by exchanging the boy at a "neutral" site, one of many springing up around the country.
In years past, family court judges would have ordered the couple to meet in a public place to make the exchange. Typically, it's a McDonald's or a Wal-Mart or even a police substation, the idea being that a public location would lessen the chances of a heated exchange or violence.
Such arrangements have long been deemed inadequate, even as they represented a judge's only recourse. But here in St. Louis, the divorce-court judge had another option.
Sarah and her "ex" arrive at a local counseling center at staggered times, and are escorted to separate rooms. Then a staffer faciliates the exchange of their son, and the parents leave 15 minutes apart, having never laid eyes - or fists - on one another.
"Without this program, I think my life would be in total turmoil," says Sarah.
The specter of small children having to witness ugly disputes between divorced parents during exchanges has long haunted judges and child-welfare advocates.
The threat of spousal abuse at such meetings is another consideration. So is the cost to overburdened courts - in both time and money - of seemingly inane arguments between warring ex-spouses escalating, repeatedly, to the status of a lawsuit.
But recently, monitored exchange programs have begun to provide a solution. They range from grass-roots efforts staffed by volunteers to generously funded programs run by trained professionals and employing numerous safeguards such as armed security guards and necklace "panic buttons" that sound a silent alarm in case of trouble.
The St. Louis program is one of the more comprehensive efforts in the nation.
Initiated by a judge (a pattern repeated frequently around the country) and paid for out of the court's budget, the supervised-visit-and-exchange program is operated by Provident Counseling, a local nonprofit. Provident converted several basement offices in their downtown headquarters to playroom/waiting rooms and named the designated area Heritage House.
In a typical case, a custodial parent will arrive with their child on a Friday evening, sign in to ensure they showed up at the proper time, be scanned by an armed security guard with a handheld wand, and escorted to a waiting room stocked with toys and games.
Fifteen minutes later, their ex-spouse will arrive and undergo the same procedure but be escorted to an adjoining room. Under the eyes of a second security guard, a staffer will move the child from one room to the other, and the non-custodial parent will leave with the child. Fifteen minutes later, the custodial parent is allowed to go.
Children repeatedly exposed to shouting matches between their divorced parents can come to dread weekend exchanges, say experts. Neutral exchange programs tend to calm their anxiety, often within a few visits.
"You have kids arrive here crying, even wailing, terribly upset when they first come in," says Barbara Flory, head of Heritage House. "Over time, we see those children settle down, and come in laughing and smiling and running up to staff to give them hugs and kisses, and asking, 'Is my daddy here yet?' "
A soon-to-be published study of Heritage House participants found that, in general, documented visitation there doubled with the exchange program. Before, in cases where the court had ordered twice-monthly visitation, average ex-partners were only connecting once per month. In most cases, Heritage House says, the missed visits have been almost eliminated. Moreover, 91 percent of Heritage House's 100 parents acknowledged their past relationship involved verbal aggression, while 67 percent reported physical abuse. As might be expected with a program designed to keep warring parents from laying eyes on one another, the conflict rate was reduced literally to zero.
In some cases, the exchange programs provide a cooling down mechanism, and after months or years, bickering couples manage to bury the hatchet and begin meeting face-to-face once again. In other instances, success is measured by continued separation.
That's the case with Bob Frank, a St. Louis resident, who admits to having had an affair with a woman six years ago that resulted in a baby girl. A series of ugly episodes with the woman escalated into a lawsuit being filed against him on what he calls trumped-up assault charges. Mr. Frank spent nearly two years in court resolving the case, after which a judge ordered the pair into the Heritage House program.
"You have to understand," says Frank, "after all I've been through, after all the money I've lost to legal expenses, after all the false charges, I simply won't meet face-to-face again. I'd probably give up my visitation rights first, that's how bad it was."