It’s not easy being a single parent. It’s even more difficult for the children involved in situations with split parents. And if there are custody issues, it can be difficult for parents to meet in a friendly, caring way to share their time with their children.
Supporting Area Families Everyday (SAFE) is an organization that provides a positive environment for children to visit with their parent in a setting that is both supervised and family friendly.
“SAFE provides a safe dignified approach to custody exchanges,” said Heather McNett, SAFE executive director. “With our no contact custody exchange program, your child will transition from one parent to the other in a child friendly environment designed just for them.”
McNett explained that the mission statement of SAFE is to strengthen families and build a healthier community. They offer supervised visitations and custody exchanges for families in Bradford County and surrounding areas.
SAFE is located in Towanda at the Trinity Lutheran Church at 908 South Main St. The organization was started in October 2017 and was renamed by John Shaffer from Canton in October 2020. A 501c3 non-profit organization, they are funded by individuals, fundraising, grants, and the United Way. They have helped about 45 families since they opened, as they continue to provide a neutral child friendly safe environment.
“It provides a more dignified place for parents to bring their children for a custody exchange,” said McNett.
“You don’t have all the stares of the public wondering what you’re doing,” said Jessica Parks, SAFE supervisor.
“And you do have all additional measures of safety with a no contact exchange,” added McNett.
Typically, it’s mothers and fathers who participate in the child exchanges, but it has also includes grandparents and others. The age of the children range from newborns through teens.
The visiting parent is scheduled to arrive first. Once there, the drop off parent arrives about ten minutes later. Parents have no contact. Trained staff members facilitate the exchange.
In addition to McNett and Parks, Mercedes Muese and Lois Shaffer are monitors who help with the facilitation.
“We have a good relationship with our parents on both ends of the spectrum,” said McNett. “We work really hard to make this a neutral environment so they recognize it as such.”
There are many different reasons parents use the SAFE services including P.F.A., housing, treatment programs and recent release. And according to McNett, “We don’t judge.”
They work with parents to give them the best time with their children. They tell parents, “You’re in the meantime space.”
“This is a neutral space to maintain a relationship with your child while working through whatever it is that brought you here,” said McNett.
“We’ve had a number of families ‘graduate’ when they no longer need our services,” said Parks.
Parks remembers watching a bond develop between a father and his daughter. She was an infant and it was the father’s first meeting with her.
“It was really great seeing him come in not knowing anything about babies and then leaving well equipped to handle the situation,” said Parks. “It was funny when I supervised him changing a diaper for the first time. It was a pretty messy one!”
McNett and Parks work very well together, and are constantly bouncing ideas back and forth to create the best environment for the children and their parents.
There are provided activities for children to do with their parent, both inside and outside. These include games, movies, crafts, books, a swing set, and corn hole toss. Families even decorated their own Christmas trees together.
“We try to keep the family traditions alive for them,” said McNett.
“We can see that they have made good memories here,” added Parks.
In some situations where parents can’t make a visitation in person due to illness or bad weather, they utilize Zoom video chat. They received a grant from the David and Carol Keeffe Fund, which allowed them to use the virtual option when needed.
SAFE is always looking for volunteers and they welcome any donations.
“Our children bond with our volunteers and they love our retired community,” said McNett.
For more information call (570) 250-7401 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We have such a happy environment here,” said Parks. “Even though this is a very serious undertaking.”
McNett remembers one child who said, “I like visiting here because they make my Daddy be nice.”
Heather McNett and Jessica Parks are very dedicated to helping ensure parents have a peaceful way of staying connected with their children. When that happens, they say, “We have love here.”