When Shelly de Silva and her husband legally separated two years ago, the couple signed a contract spelling out her visitation rights. Her husband, who has custody of their 6-year-old daughter, would allow de Silva to visit with the girl two weekends a month, every other holiday and two weeks every summer.
But since the separation, the 28-year-old Laurel woman said, she has seen her daughter on only one weekend, even though her estranged husband lives less than 15 miles away in Greenbelt. With little money and no job, de Silva had nowhere to turn for help in getting her visitation rights.
"He said it was his decision to make, and he didn't think it was the right time for me to see her," de Silva said. "He knew I didn't have the money to go to court."
Visitation problems similar to de Silva's surface almost daily before Prince George's domestic relations masters, court and county officials say.
They come in such large numbers that the county is hiring an investigator to ensure that parents without custody are getting to see their children in accordance with the terms set by the court in their individual cases. That decision puts Prince George's in the forefront of a slow-building movement to protect the rights of parents without custody.
"This is revolutionary on the East Coast," said David L. Levy, president of the National Council for Children's Rights. "It's simply unheard of."
No other jurisdiction in the Washington area has anything like it. Courts in Fairfax and Arlington counties employ investigators who look into custody and visitation disputes, but only after a judge has ordered them to do so. In the District, Alexandria and Montgomery County, a parent without custody can try working out the problem with a court mediator or can file a formal complaint with the court and wait from six to 12 weeks for a hearing.
But court mediators listen to all kinds of complaints and cannot make the effort to contact the parent with custody, Prince George's officials said. They expect the investigator, whose sole responsibility will be to check out complaints about visitation, to get the custodial parent's attention and keep cases from going back to court.
The issue has received so little attention that no agency, court or individual keeps up-to-date statistics on violations of visitation rights. Not even Michigan, which has enforced child-support payments and visitation rights since 1919 and is considered the leader among states in that effort, keeps track of how many parents with custody interfere with the other parents' visitations.
Joan Kelly and Judith Wallerstein, California sociologists whose book "Surviving the Breakup" is frequently cited by domestic relations officials as one of the most exhaustive works on visitation problems, said research indicates that between 10 percent and 25 percent of parents with custody interfere with visitation. The Prince George's Office of Child Support Enforcement handles 14,000 support cases a year.
"The real story is there are no figures about the extent to which this is a problem," said Wallerstein, who has studied child-support and visitation issues for 15 years. "And it is a problem."
The Prince George's proposal is loosely based on the Michigan system. An ad hoc committee, formed last spring by Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening to study enforcement of visitation rights, advanced the idea after a group of fathers without custody of their children complained to the County Council that Prince George's concentrated on collecting child-support payments and gave little attention to the rest of a divorce judgment.
"In Maryland, officials have been quick to point out that you might not see your children for awhile if you are sent to jail for nonpayment of child support," said Bruce Burroughs, president of Fathers United for Equal Rights. "But they don't say anything when you're denied visitation rights, which is really a form of child support."
That criticism cannot be limited to Prince George's. New federal law allows state and local governments to deduct support payments from the delinquent parent's wages. And parents who provide more than half of a child's support no longer can claim that child as a deduction on their federal tax forms if the child is not in their custody.
The Prince George's investigator's position will be temporary, initially, as county officials seek to gauge what effect it has. The investigator will work from about January through April for the Office of Child Support Enforcement at a cost to the county of about $10,500, said Phyllis Diggs, Glendening's chief aide for human services. The investigator will not have police or judicial powers.
Meg Sollenberger, executive director of the office, said the investigator will act on complaints submitted by parents by first contacting the custodial parent by telephone and then by a follow-up letter. In some cases, Sollenberger said, meetings will be arranged at the investigator's office. The object is to make the custodial parents aware of the penalties for violating custody agreements and inform them that if the problem is not corrected, the noncustodial parent will be counseled to take legal action.
In Michigan, the legislature changed its system in 1983 to give visitation investigators more leverage in dealing with parents. The state's counties now have the option of allowing parents without custody to make up the time lost with his or her children if an investigator finds the custodial parent's excuse for interfering with a visit is not legitimate.
"We thought it would be a big headache when it started," said Gary Grinwis, chief investigator for Muskegon Circuit Court, in the Michigan county where the system started. "But it turned out to be a great lever to help mediate these visitation problems."
Prince George's County Attorney Thomas Smith said the investigator "will be one step up from a mediator" and will not be able to settle every complaint. "Sometimes the parents just need someone to tell them that there is somebody else involved in the dispute besides them . . . their children."
Shelly de Silva thinks the investigator would be effective in her case, even without strict enforcement powers. "If someone put just a little pressure on my husband, he would let me see her," she said. "There's nobody pressuring him now."
But Edward Green, a District Heights parent without custody, isn't so sure. "How will that person deal with parents who don't talk to each other?" he asked. "For them to send me any kind of mediator . . . that's a joke. I already have a court order that says what my wife is supposed to do."
Lillian Brooks, director of court services for Alexandria, said parents without custody are "sort of getting the short end of the stick."
"We don't have any one that's looking out for the noncustodial parent," Brooks said. "Everything is aimed at helping the custodial parent collect child support. It really is an imbalanced situation."