Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Safe Haven center serves families affected by domestic violence. See the video and more photos with this story.

A place is now available in Middletown where families affected by domestic violence can have supervised visitation and exchanges of children.

After five years of development, the Safe Haven Family Visitation Center held an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 6 at 210 Cleaver Farm Road north of East Main Street in Middletown.

“We provide a safe place for children to visit the non-custodial parent with supervision in cases when a protection from abuse or no-contact order is in place,” said Tia Tucker, coordinator of family visitation centers of New Castle County for Child Inc.

The center also offers a place for a safe exchange, when the non-custodial parent is picking up a child or dropping off a child.

“We have security guards, trained counselors and scheduling so the non-custodial parent and the injured party don’t meet. We also have separate entrances for each parent,” said Tucker. “The counselors are also trained to prevent a parent from talking negatively about the other parent or about custody in front of the child.”

She said when the non-custodial parent enters the center, security guards check him or her with a metal detector, then a counselor comes out to speak to him or her before the visit with the child to make sure he or she is emotionally ready for the visit and there are no signs of drug or alcohol usage.

Reasons for the program

The Family Visitation Program was established in 1995 in response to an increasing number of domestic violence-related deaths and other crimes in the community. In 1992, there were 11 homicides in Delaware connected to domestic violence, 372 intimate partner-related rapes and sexual assaults, and 7,955 domestic violence assaults, according to the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.

Two of these murders occurred while parents were meeting to exchange their children for visitation.

“For many years, the Family Court has considered the Family Visitation Centers an important resource for parents and children needing a safe and supervised setting for visits or exchanges,” said Chief Judge Michael K. Newell of Delaware’s Family Court. “Families in the Middletown area will benefit from having the additional Safe Haven Center to serve the community.”

The first centers opened in 1995 in Newark and Milford.

The Middletown center brings the total number of family visitation centers in Delaware to six. Child Inc. operates locations in Newark and Wilmington, while Peoples Place II runs similar centers in Dover, Milford and Georgetown.

How the center is funded

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) approved funding for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) under the Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program. This cooperative agreement supports supervised visitation and safe exchange options for families with a history of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, child abuse or stalking.

Although the federal grant was received in September 2012, the project had remained in the developmental stage for more than five years because of the requirements of the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) regarding requirements for a site that could be used for the new center. Working hand-in-hand with Child Inc., the Office of Community Services within DHSS toured more than 20 facilities available for commercial lease. Sites were ruled out for a variety of reasons, including size, compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act, cost and safety. The search ended when Child Inc. secured a landlord-donor who provided the Middletown site. The facility is new construction and has passed the Office of Violence Against Women’s requirements and the Town of Middletown’s zoning.

“During these challenging periods for families, it’s important to have locations that keep travel time to a minimum for these visits that bring parents and children together, as well as the exchanges of children between parents,” said DHSS Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker, a board-certified family physician. “I am grateful to our Office of Community Services and our community partners for their dedication in finding a Middletown site that would meet the needs of families in that area, along with all of the federal, state and local requirements.”

The Family Visitation Program provides a safe, structured, and nurturing environment where children can maintain or re-establish a relationship with a non-residential parent, and help keep children, adult victims and other parties in cases of intimate partner violence safe during exchanges and visitation.

“Having this new Middletown location will allow increased access for this family-centric approach of providing a secure place for children to unite safely with family members,” said Renée P. Beaman, Director of DHSS’ Division of State Service Centers.

Rules for the visits

The supervised visits between children and their residential/non-residential parents are conducted based on the parameters designated under court orders. Parents who mutually agree to use the centers’ services may contact the centers directly or be referred by family court, social services, attorneys, victim services or other agencies.

Family visitation centers do not make recommendations about changes in custody or the appropriateness of changing visitation arrangements. Trained staff supervise each visit and monitor each exchange. Safety measures that exist in Delaware’s family visitation centers include separate and distinct entrances and parking areas for each parent; staggered arrival and departure times; security camera monitoring; experienced security guards; professionally trained staff; and access to interpretation services for participants who do not speak English or are deaf or hearing-impaired.

“Child Inc. is pleased to be able to support families through the operation of the new Safe Havens Center,” said Lori Sitler, executive director of Child Inc. “For families who have a history of domestic violence or other situations that require supervised visitation and safe exchange, this new Middletown location will enable more parents and children to develop healthy, safe relationships and ensure that victims of violence are protected.”

Now serving nearly 700 families

During fiscal year 2017, the family visitation centers served 681 families statewide, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. That year, the program facilitated 2,137 individual visits and 1,688 group visitations.

In response to a growing need to increase the state’s capacity, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of State Service Centers, in collaboration with Child Inc., applied for and became the recipient of the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) Safe Havens: Supervised Visitation and Safe Exchange Grant Program Grant. The facility opening in Middletown is the result of those efforts.

For more information about the family visitation centers, referrals, and/or appointments, call Child Inc. at (302)283-7518.