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The Safe Passage Center: helping families stay together

IMG 2668The front door of the Safe Passage Center in Rockville, MD PHOTO BY ABBY CRUZIn 2007, Gail Pumphrey and her three children David, 12, Meagan, 10, and Brandon, 6, were shot and killed by their father on Thanksgiving Day during an unsupervised court-ordered visitation exchange at Unity Neighborhood Park in Montgomery County. 

Janet Blackburn, 62, sister of Gail Pumphrey and aunt of the Brockdorff children, believes if a place like the Safe Passage Center had existed back then, that tragedy could have been averted.

The Safe Passage Center hired staff members last October and fully opened its doors to Montgomery County residents at its Rockville location in December, becoming the first such center in the area. Since 2007, at least 35 children have been killed statewide in intimate partner-related violence, according to data collected from Court Watch Montgomery from 2004 to 2016. 

Court Watch advocated for the need of a Safe Passage Center, and the Montgomery County Council approved the funding. Now there is a center that provides a place on common ground for families who need to meet for shared custody or child visitation and avoid any altercations. 

Currently, the center has completed a total of 129 intakes, 64 children served, and 364 total visitations/exchanges since the beginning of 2018 until now. These numbers form the basis for a monthly report, which includes the number of visits, number of exchanges, number of parents served, and number of children served. The report is submitted to the Montgomery County DHHS on a monthly basis for review and monitoring.

“To me, the center could have saved their lives; this really touches the problem for me,” Blackburn said during a phone interview. “My sister did not have access to one [Safe Passage Center]. You know if she did, she would have certainly used it; there would be no doubt in my mind.” 

“Children should have a relationship with both of their parents, and this is a place where they [parents] can have that consistent time with their children,” said Karen Mull, program manager of the Safe Passage Center. 

The SPC offers supervised visitation and monitored exchanges for families with a Montgomery County Court order. The services are free for County residents as long as they have a referral from the court, which could be for any situation, such as domestic violence, family conflict, or extended parental absences.

IMG 2666Safe Passage Center PHOTO BY ABBY CRUZ 

“As a center, while we may be serving victims of domestic violence, we really try to serve the families holistically. We really try to be a support to both the parents,” said Mull. 

The SFP is a member of the Supervised Visitation Network (SVN), a network whose code of ethics and standard are safety-driven, as is the center. The center’s safety features include onsite security, walk-through metal detectors, security cameras, separate entrances and waiting rooms, and separate parking lots for each of the parents. 

The SFP has two separate entrances located on either side of the building. The green entrance is for the custodial parents and children. The brown entrance is for the visiting parents, who must arrive 15 minutes before the exchange. The green waiting room and brown waiting rooms are primarily for the center’s monitored exchanges and visitations. 

“Security is a big concern, security and safety, but when you walk into these rooms, you will feel the warmth. It is like a house setting almost, like you are in your home,” said Wendy Enderson, director of development.

For supervised visits, the center offers three playrooms, each with a different theme (squirrel, fox, and owl), to cater to the different age groups of the children who are part of the program. Each room has a selection of stuffed animals devoted to its theme, along with toys, books, microwaves, chairs, televisions, and a changing table in case it is needed. 

Supervised visitations have a visitation monitor, as well a staff person who sits to observe visits and takes notes to provide for the court. 

“We are really working closely with the parents, the children, and the family as a whole to provide this type of environment that they can still see their kids, be with their kids, and play with their kids,” said Enderson. “The idea is, you don’t want to separate the families but we do want to provide that safety and security. We want to try to give the kids as much of a family support system as we can.”

Currently, the center serves 46 families, including 64 children. Families at the center vary in the number of children they have, ranging from one child to as many as three involved in the center. Families can use the Safe Passage Center for the duration of their court order. There are staff members at the SPF who can speak and translate for families that speak Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin. 

“She would have taken advantage of the exchange because the center does both; it’s the safe-exchange portion that would have made a difference in her life,” Blackburn said of her sister Gail. “I definitely feel like we need more centers. We need more centers like that all over the state of Maryland.” 

The Safe Passage Center, Montgomery County’s Supervised Visitation & Monitored Exchange Program, is located at 1010 Grandin Avenue, Rockville, MD.

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