Custody exchanges can be exhausting and stressful — and sometimes dangerous.
Centre County Child Access Center administrators know that all too well.
The center, which strives to provide a safe space for custody exchanges and visitation services, hosted an open house Wednesday.
The center got its start after a custody-related tragedy on Easter Sunday in 2007.
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“The tragic death of Jodi Barone really brought everyone to the table for a real, motivated cause,” President Judge Thomas King Kistler said Wednesday. Kistler was instrumental in jump-starting the program in 2008.
Jodi Warshaw Barone, of State College, was shot and killed by her estranged husband during what was supposed to be a routine custody exchange in a convenience store parking lot in Mill Hall.
After shooting Jodi, the man turned the gun on himself, leaving their 3-year-old child without parents.
Three weeks ago, Joseph Boller, 18, of East Stroudsburg, was charged with kidnapping after police say he duct-taped the mother of his infant child’s hands together, forced her into the trunk of a vehicle and drove to Milesburg, where police caught up with him in a McDonald’s parking lot.
And in 2013, Kenneth Ayers shot and killed his son and himself during a custody exchange at a relative’s house in Huntingdon County. Ayers also shot his estranged wife during the exchange.
Our goal here is to simply provide a safe space for families. We are doing that in a way where we remain neutral. We don’t point fingers or judge parents. We don’t try to place blame, either.
Jamie Jones, Centre County Child Access Center program director
At Wednesday’s open house, Kistler spoke to the attendees, which included county Judges Pamela Ruest and Katie Oliver along with District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and several assistant district attorneys.
Also in attendance was the assistant director for the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, Kathleen Stehouwer, who works directly with the two women who run the center — program director Jamie Jones and Lilly, who asked that her last name be withheld because of work-related confidentiality standards.
“Our goal here is to simply provide a safe space for families. We are doing that in a way where we remain neutral. We don’t point fingers or judge parents. We don’t try to place blame, either,” Jones said.
“When people are ordered to come here, we recognize that it’s not their finest hour, but we work with families and are very fond of the children,” Lilly said. “It’s good for them to have a place that they can go that’s safe so that they don’t have to witness fighting or tension.”
The work they do can be as challenging as it is rewarding.
“We don’t leave here and not think about the people we work with; we both genuinely care about the families that we are working with,” Lilly said.
Jones said the families are always on her mind, even when she’s away from work.
“When a family is in a difficult situation, where there are substantial safety issues, I worry about them on the off hours or how they are doing when they are not here,” she said. “We hear about if they don’t have a job or if they are struggling financially. We recognize there are a lot of other things going on with the families when they are not with us and we think about that when we are not with them. We watch them try to figure out all of those things and we see how it can be very difficult. That doesn’t leave us when they go home.”
All of the people involved in the center agreed that safety is their top priority.
“This is about having a safe place for kids,” Stehouwer said. “It’s very important for them to see their parents in an environment that’s safe.”
The program has yielded many successful exchanges.
“Some families graduate and are able to go on and exchange safely without our help,” Lilly said.
“All of that heightened emotion gets diffused and they realize they can do this on their own,” Kistler said.
The center is funded by a federal grant, which runs out in September. According to Gene Lauri, director of the county Criminal Justice Planning Department, the center’s annual operating costs are nearly $130,000.
The organization is investigating potential fundraising options and plans to apply for an extension on the grant.