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Sheriff: Every parent searched at Merrimack County family visitation centers

Officials in the Merrimack County Sheriff’s Office said yesterday they believe the security measures in place at local family visitation centers do as much as possible to prevent tragedies like the one that took the life of a 9-year-old boy in Manchester on Sunday.

Joshua Savyon of Amherst died Sunday when his father, Muni Savyon, 54, of Manchester shot him during a supervised visit with the boy at Manchester’s YWCA. Muni Sayvon then shot and killed himself; the man supervising the visit was unharmed. Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Strelzin told WMUR that Savyon had not been searched before the visit, though a handheld metal detector is sometimes available at the center.

All non-custodial parents visiting children at the two centers in Merrimack County – a main center on the county government campus in Boscawen and a satellite center in Franklin – are scanned with a handheld metal detector before being allowed in, said Sheriff Scott Hilliard.

“It’s very black and white. It doesn’t make a difference who comes in, we adhere to the policy: Everybody gets ‘wanded’ and everybody gets searched,” Hilliard said. “In our business, if you set something in stone and don’t deviate from it, usually it will work.”

The Merrimack County Visitation Center provides visitation and custody exchange services for families who have experienced domestic violence. The center provides three types of visitation services, according to its website:

∎ Fully supervised visitation services on-site with a visitation supervisor present during the entire visit, the most appropriate service when there are safety concerns, according to the website.

∎ Semi-supervised visitation services on-site with a visitation supervisor observing every 10 to 15 minutes. These visits are most appropriate when there are concerns of abduction, substance abuse or exposure to inappropriate activities or people, according to the website.

∎ Exchange services with a visitation supervisor facilitating the transfer of children from one parent to the other. Supervised exchanges are most appropriate when there are concerns of the custodial parent’s safety, or substance abuse.

The center staff does not determine the appropriate level of supervision; families agree on their service, or it is determined by a court or other mediator. The centers accommodate as many as six families in a day, said Capt. Harry Thornley, who schedules deputies for security duty there.

“We’re very strict on rules,” Thornley said. “It’s the same way every single visitation. Some parents appreciate the extra security, others don’t care for it, but I explain why we’re doing it. There’s never a 100 percent guarantee you can keep the place safe but we do what we can for a reason.”

Thornley has been involved with the visitation center since 2002, and said he can’t remember a parent trying to bring a weapon to an appointment.

He and center staff will review the security policies and procedures this week, he said. Center staff members were not available for comment yesterday.

“I don’t foresee a lot of changes happening, but it’s about awareness for everyone that we need to be on top of our toes. It’s terrible, and I really feel for everyone in Manchester,” Thornley said.

The Merrimack County centers are one of only two in New Hampshire that have signed on as members of the International Supervised Visitation Network, a Florida-based nonprofit that establishes standards, promotes education and advances professionalism in the field of supervised visitation.

The network does not require that member organizations work with law enforcement, retain armed guards or even scan every parent that enters, said Executive Director Joe Nullet.

It is uncommon for centers to have regular armed security, with probably only 10 to 20 percent of centers employing local law enforcement, he said.

“More want to have them than have the opportunity,” he said, “but it’s a matter of funding.”

Instead of mandating specific behaviors or equipment, the network requires members to write policies outlining their security capabilities, and screen each case to determine whether or not they can provide safe visitation for the family. Network members are required to decline cases where they cannot manage potential risks.

“There are communities where there is no center, so people go for supervised visitation out in public places where there is absolutely no security. In those communities, the visitation providers turn away a lot of families because they cannot manage risky cases,” Nullet said.

The network also does not mandate that supervised visitation providers use metal detectors.

“Some take the position that if they have to have metal detectors, they can’t handle the case. If the risk is considered that high, they shouldn’t be taking that case,” Nullet said.

Only a handful of states – a group that does not include New Hampshire – have legislated standards for visitation programs, he said.

In California, a state with few centers for supervised visitation where many visits are held in unsecured public locations, state law mandates 24 hours of training for providers, he said.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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