Domestic violence survivors say Philly put them at risk by failing to reopen a supervised parental visit site

It was around the time her daughter’s father fired off a gun outside her home, according to Tysheema Brown, that she realized navigating custody wouldn’t be easy.

Brown filed for a protective order and sole custody. But a Philadelphia Family Court judge ordered supervised visits for Brown’s 2-year-old daughter and her father.

A judge can order such supervised visits whenever there is a history of parental abuse or another issue that might pose risk of harm to a child. Before the pandemic, those visits would have occurred in a supervised “nursery” in the Family Court. But that facility shut down at the start of the pandemic — and the court provided no alternative instructions to families like Brown’s. Even as schools reopened, court dates resumed, and churches, restaurants, and gyms all filled with unmasked visitors, the nursery remained closed.

Marty O’Rourke, a spokesperson for Family Court, said pandemic safety precluded it. “Circumstances have not yet improved to the point at which the supervised visits can be safely resumed,” he said.

So, Brown became one of hundreds of parents in Philadelphia who have had to patch together alternative visit and custody-exchange plans — a situation that advocates say puts both children and parents in jeopardy.

» READ MORE: After 7-year-old Kayden Mancuso was killed by her own father, her mother now fights to protect other children

Philadelphia’s site, before it shut down nearly two years ago, was the only publicly run facility of its kind in the region. State and local governments’ failure to invest in those services is a problem, advocates say. And, they say, it will become an even larger one if the state legislature passes Kayden’s Law, a bill that would presumptively require supervised visits for any parents with a history of domestic abuse. The bill, named for Kayden Mancuso, a 7-year-old girl who was killed by her father in Manayunk in 2018, would require professional supervision if a judge finds ongoing risk to the child — a service that advocates say doesn’t exist in Philadelphia and that costs $50 or more per hour at privately run programs in the suburbs.

Susan Pearlstein, senior attorney in Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s family law unit, said the need is difficult to quantify. About 120 families used to meet each Sunday at the courthouse, where sheriff’s officers maintained order.

“All estimates are that the demand is in a sense thousands of cases higher than that,” added Frank Cervone of the Support Center for Child Advocates. “But there is no hard data.”

» READ MORE: Thousands in Pa. are put on a child-abuse registry with no hearing. They say it’s ruining their lives.

Many of those families, Pearlstein said, hand off custody at police stations, McDonald’s restaurants, or store parking lots. But, she added, “None of that is safe for survivors.”

Even the court nursery, she said, did not exactly feel like a safe space for many of her clients. A properly supervised site requires a professional who can monitor or help facilitate the conversation, not just officers making sure there’s no physical abuse, she said. And, she said, pickups and drop-offs should be coordinated so that parties in conflict don’t have to interact. “At the court facility,” she said, “victims of domestic violence were still being threatened and stalked and harassed. They had to wait in the same line to get in, there were a lot of threats or verbal abuse going on.”

In the pandemic, Brown and others in her situation found out how much worse matters could get.

At first, her ex’s grandmother agreed to host the visits, but that soon ended in conflict. Next, Brown found a cousin willing to supervise visits, but that woman soon told her she no longer felt safe, Brown said. Finally, she persuaded yet another cousin to step up, an arrangement that lasted until this July, when her daughter’s father was arrested on dozens of gun charges. He remains incarcerated.

“I didn’t really want to do the visits,” she said, because each encounter felt charged. “I had no other choice.”

Pearlstein said some clients were given court orders to attend a private supervised visit at a center that, it turned out, was no longer in operation. Others were ordered to supervise visits by their own former abusers.

One client, Khadijah McFarland, said her 3-year-old has not seen her father since the pandemic closed the courthouse. At this point, her daughter is used to McFarland as a single mother, and finding a way to resume visits would just be one more chore on her to-do list, she said.

“We all know what the right answer is,” Cervone said. “It’s supervised visitation and exchange sites.”

» READ MORE: Philly took $5 million in foster children’s Social Security payments without telling them

He noted that some counties have created publicly funded sites that look more like community centers, complete with playgrounds and colorful rooms where parents and kids can play, talk, or work on homework together. One such site, the Centre County Child Access Center in Bellefonte, Pa., is run by the United Way with some county support. It provides supervised visits to about 15 families, and has largely remained open during the pandemic.

For now, there are a handful of specialized providers in the region. “It’s really hard work,” said Nell Bowers, a Doylestown-based psychologist who runs such a program, called The Assurance Group. “It take a lot of time and it doesn’t make a lot of money.”

The firm charges parent $60 to $75 per hour to oversee visits in casual settings like a restaurant, a park, a zoo, or museum. The service includes one-on-one observation and documentation of visits, which is then available to attorneys and the court for review.

They’ve also established highly detailed rules to ensure the parents don’t come into contact at pickups or drop-offs. For instance, the supervised parent must arrive before the drop-off time and undergo a brief evaluation to ensure they’re not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, and are in an appropriate state of mind to meet with the child.

“That makes for happier people,” Bowers said. “And it also more importantly keeps the children out of the very awkward position of transitioning from one parent to the other.”