Buena Vista Police Department creates holding room for children

By Jack Hunter

Buena Vista Mayor Billy Fitzgerald realized that the city needed a special, safe space for children inside the Buena Vista Police Department building after he heard that a social worker and a state trooper had argued in January over who should take custody of an infant.

The state trooper had arrested the infant’s parents on I-81 in the middle of the night after they’d been pulled over for speeding.

That meant there was no guardian to care for the child. The state trooper insisted that a representative of the state Department of Social Services should take the infant. But the social services department’s worker refused because a relative was supposedly on the way to pick up the child.

“So it was a big argument, and the kid was left in limbo,” Fitzgerald said. “So, when they said that, I said well, ‘Why don’t we just have a room set up at the police department?’”

The city has begun converting a third-floor storage area in the police station on Park Avenue into a room for children in similar situations. The room is almost cleaned out. City Manager Jason Tyree said workers in the city’s Public Works Department will start painting as soon as possible.

Interim Police Chief David Clements said the room could be ready in four to six weeks.

New room involves cooperation between police and social workers

With the new room, a social services staff member can watch over children at the police station without taking them into official state custody.

“This takes the child out of the picture because both sides know that the child is safe,” said Fitzgerald, who is Buena Vista’s representative on the Rockbridge Area D.S.S. Board.

The board oversees the local office of the state Department of Social Services, which runs programs designed to help the most vulnerable people in Virginia, especially children.

“Automatically, when something like that happens, a child will go to this room,” the mayor said, “and that child will be taken care of and protected until we [find] out who has to take control of the child.”

Project Horizon, a local nonprofit organization that works with victims of domestic abuse, agreed to buy furniture and other décor for the room with a $4,500 grant it received from the Lexington Presbyterian Church. The church’s grant program is designed to help at-risk children.

“Because that just meshes with our mission, we decided to help them do it,” said Judy Casteele, Project Horizon’s executive director.

Dinah Hupman, director of the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services, agreed to assign a staff member to help supervise children who need to use the room until authorities figure out whether relatives can take custody, or if the state must step in.

“That’s an area that we can sit with the child and not have the child in our care, but we can assist law enforcement with looking after the child,” she said.

Mayor cites personal experience with social services

Fitzgerald said he remembers what it felt like to be a child who depended on social services. He said he grew up poor, in a single-parent household.

“Growing up, my family got a lot of help” from social services, he said.

That’s why, he said, he has gotten involved in several nonprofit organizations that help families like his “because if it wasn’t for people like that, we wouldn’t have survived.”

Police and social services must work together in child custody cases when a child’s guardians get arrested and taken to jail.

Tyree said the state trooper involved in the incident in January took the baby to the Lexington Police Department. Fitzgerald said the infant stayed there overnight until a relative who lives in New York arrived and took the baby.

Buena Vista’s police department has also disagreed with state social workers on where to hold children whose parents were arrested. (Hunter photo)

The city manager said social services and the Buena Vista police also got into a disagreement last October over custody of a young girl at Kling Elementary School. Authorities suspected child abuse, he said.

Tyree said the city explored the possibility of finding another location for the room. But he said children caught up in contentious abuse and neglect cases will be safer in the police station.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to attempt to break into the police department,” he said. “If it’s an abuse situation, they won’t be able to get in.”

Fitzgerald said he didn’t think his idea would gain as much support as it did. “I just thought it was a simple way of fixing a problem,” he said.

Tyree said Fitzgerald’s personal experience made the difference.

“The DSS people, the police department and even myself can sometimes be too close to something, and you need to look at it from a different perspective,” the city manager said. “And that’s all he did.”

Fitzgerald said the room will be available to Rockbridge County and Lexington at no cost.

Clements said the space could serve other purposes. “Interviewing a juvenile, or interviewing someone that’s gone through something traumatic, as a victim or witness, I think certainly sitting on a couch and talking to someone is a lot more comfortable than sitting in a rigid plastic chair in a small room,” the chief said.

Hupman said she hopes communication between social services and law enforcement will improve with the addition of the space.

“That is part of the goal of this,” she said, “the collaboration with the local law enforcement agencies and DSS, that we can work together.”