Triple homicide cited in push for secure child-exchange centers

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 2, 2013 

Missy Cornett says she believes her family members would still be alive today if Kentucky offered more protections for estranged parents at risk of domestic violence situations.

Cornett's husband, Jackie Douglas Cornett, 53, daughter Taylor, 12, and niece Caitlin, 20, were shot to death last month during a custody exchange of her son in a Hazard college parking lot in January. Caitlin's former boyfriend Dalton Stidham, 21, has been charged in the three deaths.

"We must explore ways to create safe exchange centers throughout the state in response to the tragedy in Hazard," said Darlene Thomas, executive director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program.

There are secure centers in Lexington and Louisville where supervised exchanges take place so that parents don't have to see each other, but officials say that in most parts of the state, including Perry and surrounding counties, such services are non-existent.

Child exchanges often occur in parking lots of stores and fast-food restaurants, which advocates say is not safe for families or citizens who might be in the area.

"They thought that a school was a safe place. We see that it wasn't," Missy Cornett said in a telephone interview. "If they had some kind of exchange place where they had to walk through metal detectors, just to keep the violence down, and one (parent) leave before the other, where they don't even have to see other" it might help families in the future, she said.

Caitlin Cornett, needed a ride to the parking lot to pick up her son from the child's father, Stidham, who was returning him from a court-ordered visit. Caitlin asked her uncle Jackie, known as Doug, to take her. Taylor wanted to ride along with them, Missy Cornett said.

But Missy said Caitlin also did not want to do the exchange alone. According to court records, Caitlin and Dalton Stidham had separated a few months earlier and had been to court that week for a custody hearing, in which Caitlin was named as the primary physical caregiver, according to court records.

Victims often believe that being in a public place and having a family member or friend with them will reduce the potential for violence, said Thomas. Often, in an effort to protect victims, she said, judges enter visitation agreements to exchange children in public locations or private homes with others present.

Police stations are another alternative, but advocates say that often there is not an officer available to stand in the parking lot.

Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association said, "It's critical that we establish safe, secure locations for exchanging children for visitation. Too many times, victims and children are placed at risk because they are required to follow court orders or risk losing custody of their children — even when their gut is telling them that they are placing their families at risk."

Opening child exchange centers — and keeping them open — requires money and community support.

Sunflower Kids is a center in Lexington that, in large part, uses federal grant money to facilitate child exchanges and supervised visitation, said executive director Stephanie Hoffman.

The center has an annual budget of $125,000, she said. When an exchange occurs at the center, the parent designated as "a safety concern" arrives and enters the building first and 15 minutes before the other parent.

Then a monitor meets the custodial parent in the parking lot and takes the child or children inside, while the custodial parent leaves.

The parent posing the concern waits another 15 minutes before leaving the building and taking the children for a visit.

Karen Trivette, executive director of the Brenda Cowan Coalition for Kentucky, said her Lexington agency has been facilitating supervised visitations for some time but just began monitoring child exchanges in January: "We have secured entrances and separate waiting areas for both custodial and non-custodial parents" so that the parents don't see each other.

When exchanges happen in less secure public places, it can put additional people at risk, Hoffman said.

Hoffman said she has been working with Tamra Gormley, a family court judge for Woodford, Scott, and Bourbon counties, for several months to open a center in Georgetown that would facilitate both child exchanges and visitations.

Scheduled to open in six months to a year, it would be funded in part with federal grant money obtained by Sunflower Kids.

"The supervised visitation and exchange centers concept is a top priority for our judicial circuit's family court," said Gormley "We had over 60 community partners attend a meeting over the summer saying, 'We want to have this visitation and exchange center in our community.'"

Gormley said in the short term, she has been meeting with county sheriffs and hopes to have a protocol ready in the next few weeks for child exchanges to be handled inside courthouses with a law enforcement officer present and metal detectors in use.

Meetings have also been held in the last few months between advocates and legal aid attorneys in Ashland to discuss opening a center there, according to Currens.

Perry District Judge Leigh Anne Stephens said she was not the judge who issued Dalton Stidham's visitation orders, but because there is no family court in Perry County, she sometimes has to work out child exchange arrangements in other cases.

Stephens said a secure center providing people to monitor child exchanges would be "wonderful" for the area.

"Many times we use the state police posts, sometimes when people travel a distance they have to meet at state parks," the judge said.

Officials at the Administrative Office of the Courts aren't aware of any discussions about creating a statewide system of child exchange centers, said spokeswoman Jamie Neal. But Neal said if such a program is proposed, "we expect we would be involved in conversations about it, and we would be happy to provide input."

Thomas, the director of the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program, said the exchange centers already in operation show that "there are ways for communities to come together to reduce the potential for further violence."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409.Twitter:@vhspears

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