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A sanctuary for families

The Baltimore Sun

It looks like a typical three-bedroom home, with a nursery, a teen game room and fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen - the works. The only thing different about Harmony House is that no one will live there.

On Tuesday, the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services will reopen the old parsonage of a Pasadena church as a place where birth parents can spend supervised time with their children in a homelike environment, receive training in being better parents and learn how to put their families back together.

Part of the county's effort to improve foster care, Harmony House will be the first facility of its kind in the state. There are similar houses across the nation.

"This is not just another place to have visits," program coordinator Chris Seipp said. "It's a place to engage families and keep them."

About 270 children are in the county's foster care system on a daily basis; 95 foster families are currently caring for children.

When children are put into foster care, courts can allow birth parents to meet with their children in supervised visiting centers, such as department agencies or shopping malls. But those environments often seem "artificial," making parents and children uncomfortable, said Marci Kennai, director of the Department of Social Services.

"If we're the agency taking children away, visits to the office are still a threat to them," Kennai said.

Tanya of Annapolis recently regained custody of her two young children by having successful supervised visits. She first visited her son and daughter once a week for an hour in the offices of the Department of Social Services on Riva Road. When those visits were going well, she was able to take them on an unsupervised visit in the community. After that, she could keep them for one night, then a weekend. Now she is a full-time mother again.

Tanya, who spoke on condition that her last name not be used, is a member of the Harmony House advisory board. Seipp said the staff wanted to ask a birth parent who has experienced such visits to add perspective to the Harmony House undertaking.

"You get to feel more comfortable and not feel threatened. It's more easy on the birth parent; they don't feel intimidated," Tanya said. "You can fix [your children] a snack, get them water and take them to the bathroom."

At Harmony House, parents can engage in typical family activities with their children in a real home: They can cook dinner, read, play with toys, garden, watch TV and bathe their children.

Parents can meet with their children in the house as often as they want, as long as a supervisor is present. No one can spend the night in the house.

In most cases, Kennai said, parents have weekly visits with their children, totaling about four hours a month and 48 hours a year.

"This is not enough," Kennai said.

The house, which the department started leasing in January for $1,595 a month through donations, has been completely funded and decorated by volunteer groups. Family and Children Services of Maryland will provide supervision, coaching and make progress reports for the parents, paid for by federal funding.

Three of the rooms are designated for specific age groups. A room for children ranging from infants to 3-year-olds was decorated by the Junior League of Annapolis with an "Under the Sea" theme. It has bright paintings of fish, seahorses and octopuses on the walls, and is furnished with a changing table, a crib, stuffed animals, chairs and baby books.

The New Annapolitans decorated a room for 4- to 10-year olds called the sunshine room. It has a sun painted on the ceiling and a train set and toys for older children.

The room for children 11 and older was decorated by Court Appointed Special Advocates with a tropical paradise theme. It has a stereo and board games.

The Chesapeake Bay Stencilers decorated walls and bathrooms throughout the house. In the basement is a family room with a foosball table, a pingpong table, couches and a large television.

In addition to visiting, foster parents can attend association meetings, birth parents can attend meetings on learning to make good decision, and teens can go to independent-living classes to learn life skills such as banking and job-seeking.

Although Harmony House provides a neutral place for visits, the Department of Social Services does not want to keep birth parents from going to the homes of foster parents for mentoring.

Pauline Molder of Severna Park has been a foster parent to more than a dozen children over the past 3 1/2 years. She is now an advocate for Harmony House.

"I think parents can interact more naturally in a home setting and not feel that they are being judged so much," she said. "It takes away the stigma."


The grand opening of Harmony House, at 3701 Mountain Road next to Magothy United Methodist Church, will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday.

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