BRAINERD, Minn. -- E-commerce exchange zones -- typically well-lit, surveilled areas intended to encourage safe transactions among online buyers and sellers -- have grown in numbers in the past few years.

Locally, the city of Crosby recently joined a lengthening list of places around the country establishing these zones. Crosby Police Officer Alan Booth pursued the idea after learning about the Big Lake Police Department’s exchange zone.

“With the big influx of Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, all the different apps people have for selling and trading stuff, it became a real big thing, especially in some of the larger population areas, and then more rural as time went on,” Booth said. “People would get assaulted and stolen from or they’d just get ripped off when they’d go and meet up with these folks to do this. … So we wanted to have an area where it’s safe, it’s under surveillance, and it’s often patrolled and it’s public, to exchange goods through this e-commerce stuff.”

But while the areas may offer peace of mind for those engaging in online garage sales and other marketplace sites, leaders from Brainerd’s child safety center are warning against using them for child custody exchanges.

“Communities have kind of identified safe places for those exchanges to take place, and people are taking it to the next level where they’re thinking that exchanging their children, that that’s an appropriate place or safe place to do that as well,” said Shannon Wussow, executive director of the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd.

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Safety centers best option, leaders say

Wussow noted those who fear for their safety during custody exchanges with exes might be lulled into a false sense of security by these sites, often located at or near police stations. But in volatile domestic situations, security cameras might not be enough to prevent violence, she said.

That was the case Christmas Day in Hamilton, Ala., when two young children witnessed the shooting death of their father by their mother’s new boyfriend in the parking lot of the city’s police department. Hamilton Police Chief Ronny Vickery told television station WBRC of Birmingham, Ala., divorced couples often use the parking lot for child custody exchanges because it’s considered safe to do so.

Wussow said centers like the Alex and Brandon Child Safety Center -- the first of its kind in the state in 2000 -- were established to prevent these types of tragedies. The center’s mission is to provide supervised parenting time and safe custody exchanges, with a focus on security, neutrality and the children’s best interests.

“In a situation where domestic violence is present in a relationship, we have set up our building to be able to facilitate those to be safe and to have the least negative impact on the kids that we are providing the services for,” Wussow said. “For instance, we have two separate entrances we use. Therefore, there’s no contact between the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent, so there would be no opportunity for conflict to arise in the presence of the children while they’re exchanging them or dropping them off for visits.”

The center also requires parents to arrive 15 minutes apart, reducing the risk of stalking behavior.

The organization was born in the wake of the deaths of 5-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Brandon Frank, murdered by their father, Kurt Frank, in 1996. The brothers’ throats were slashed with a butcher knife during an unsupervised visit at Kurt Frank’s Cold Spring home. Frank and the boys’ mother, Angie Plantenberg, were in the midst of a bitter custody dispute at the time.

The boys were known to those at the Brainerd women’s shelter, Mid-Minnesota Women’s Center -- the founding organization of the child safety center -- through attendance at a weekly support group with their mother.

“The shelter was in place at that time, and Louise Seliski, the founding mother, had vowed nothing like that was ever going to happen again if she was able to prevent it,” Wussow said. “She lobbied for funds from the state to build the safety center here in Brainerd, which was the first center in the state to provide the services specifically that we do.”

The services are often recommended through the courts as part of custody disputes, although people may also pay a fee on a sliding scale to use the center. Victims with an active order for protection against the other parent are not charged for the service.

Wussow said the organization has facilitated visits and exchanges from people as far away as the opposite ends of the country, along with people from around the five-county area and across the state. She said safety centers are the best option for people in need of safe places to exchange custody, although she acknowledged it can be difficult for those without a center nearby. Funding challenges in recent years have led to a number of closures of centers in the state, she said.

“The best way to do it would be to contact the closest safety center they have. That’s by far the best way,” Wussow said. “But obviously transportation, and time restrictions, work restrictions, that sort of thing, might get in the way of that. What I would recommend that they do is to go back to the person or people who have either recommended or court ordered the supervised visitations take place and ask what their recommendations are.”

Exchange zones and personal safety

As Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin spoke on the phone last week, she said she was gazing out the police department window, watching the exchange zone in Crosby Memorial Park. The area was chosen, Coughlin said, due to its 24-hour lighting, proximity to the department and the fact people were using the park for the purpose already.

Coughlin said the department has not received any complaints of bad experiences at the site -- in fact, she recently heard from two people who said they felt very comfortable, knowing there was a camera.

“We wanted it well lit all the time,” Coughlin said. “It gets dark early in the winter, so by the time they get over here after work, it’s going to be 5 p.m. We didn’t want to put them anywhere it was dark for a certain time.”

Booth said although the area is passed often by police and is subject to other safety measures, it’s important people take charge of their own personal safety, no matter the situation.

“Your personal safety is always the big one we want to emphasize with pretty much anything we teach with the public,” Booth said. “Personal safety is your responsibility, not just the police’s, and if you set yourself up for success, you’ll never have to deal with us.”

Booth offered these tips:

  • Insist on meeting in a public place,

  • Don’t meet in a secluded area or invite a person to one’s home,

  • Be especially careful buying and selling high-value items, and consider making a high-value exchange at a local police station by contacting them to set up an exchange time,

  • Tell a friend or family member about the exchange,

  • Take a cell phone along,

  • Considering taking a friend along for the exchange, and

  • Always trust instincts.

“A couple pairs of jeans are not worth your life,” Coughlin said.