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Court to intervene in handoff of kids

A program will have estranged parents sign their children in and out of weekend visitations as the court staff and deputies supervise.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published May 28, 2005


NEW PORT RICHEY - When angry ex-spouses meet at McDonald's to drop off their children for a court-ordered weekend visitation, the result can be unsavory, or even unsafe, for the little ones in tow.

Circuit Judge Bill Webb has heard the horror stories. One parent shows up late, or not at all. Tempers flare. Curse words escape. Punches fly.

A pilot program set to begin June 17 in west Pasco could change that. It is called the Family Connection Program. Its intent is to create an impartial meeting place where court-ordered visitation exchanges happen under the watchful eye of the family court staff and sheriff's deputies.

"It holds the promise of a great improvement of the existing procedures," said Webb, the unified family court judge in New Port Richey. "This program anticipates likely problems and provides some solutions."

When a couple splits, one person typically gets custody of the children and another gets periodic visits. Because former spouses tend to agree on little, Webb said, their attorneys often choose a public spot for the Friday handoff and Sunday return.

No one formally oversees the exchange. And that's where problems occur.

Five years in the making, the Family Connection Program is designed to supply the missing structure and security. Each Friday until 6:30 p.m., two family court staff members and a law enforcement officer will station themselves at the West Pasco Judicial Center's front lobby information desk.

The parent who is picking up a child for the weekend will arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled dropoff time. The parent with the child arrives at the court-ordered time, then waits 15 minutes to allow the other parent to leave.

Both parents sign in to record their presence. The process is repeated between 5 and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

"It should be a quick turnaround for the child," said Lillian Simon, the court operations manager coordinating the program. Limiting parents to "hi" and "bye" also should cut down on noncompliance with court orders, Webb said. If parents misbehave or don't show, they will have to answer to a judge. Staff members will keep judges abreast on cases.

Judges will refer parents to the program. How many families are served depends on the family court caseload.

If the initiative works, Webb hopes to expand it to east Pasco. With the six members of the west Pasco family court staff rotating Sunday shifts and Sheriff Bob White supplying deputies, no extra government funding will be required.

However, each family will be ordered to pay $20 per weekend to offset the costs of security, Simon said.

"Safety," the judge said, "is of paramount consideration."

Colleen Jenkins covers courts in west Pasco County. She can be reached at 727 869-6236 or cjenkins@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 28, 2005, 00:09:12]


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