How Courthouses Are Accommodating Children and Youth
By Manka Ngwa-Suh
Beanbag chairs, a jungle mural, a juice bar, video cameras, and televisions--sounds like a lounge from the 1970s or a movie set, not a working courthouse. Add lawyers who are still in high school and dogs in the hallways, and this courthouse becomes even more unusual.
Each of these elements, in fact, represents measures to better accommodate the children and youth who pass through the court system each year, whether they are testifying, having decisions made about their futures in foster care, or waiting for adults who are conducting their own court business.
Participating in court proceedings is daunting for many people. Just walking through metal detectors and navigating crowded courthouse hallways and courtrooms can be intimidating. Then there's the process of answering a multitude of questions and trying to understand obscure legal language while testifying before judges, lawyers, and an audience of strangers.
Imagine a child in this situation. What's intimidating for an adult can be even more so for a child. Being asked, in some cases, to speak to strangers about traumatizing events while sitting in furniture clearly not made for their proportions, or in a hallway bustling with activity, can be awkward and unsettling. Many times, children have to wait a long time for their cases to be called--in some facilities, in close proximity with their alleged abusers, adding to an already uncomfortable environment. Once children enter the courtroom, they're not always prepared for the situation, including not knowing who the people in the room are, where they're supposed to sit, and what they're supposed to do.
Unfortunately, this is a common situation in courts nationwide. "Appearing before a judge can be stressful for anyone, at any age, particularly children who may not understand the process fully," says social worker Nancy McFall Jean, Senior Policy Associate for Children and Families at the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). "Training judges and attorneys in child development, cultural competency, and other key concepts in child welfare will help make the process better for children."
Many courts have already begun addressing the issue. Some are using technology to make the court process less stressful for children who are testifying, whereas others are working to familiarize young people with the workings of the court and provide a safer, more entertaining environment.
As part of the renovation and preservation campaign for its historic courthouse, Bexar County, Texas, decided to overhaul the separate courts dedicated to handling child abuse and neglect cases, outfitting them with the latest video conferencing equipment and touchscreen control panels. Leading the cause was Tracy Wolff, President of the Hidalgo Foundation of Bexar County and the wife of a Bexar County judge. Wolff took up the challenge to raise $5 million for the Bexar County courthouse renovation project, including $1 million to renovate the children's courts.
"It's been scaled down for a child," Hidalgo Foundation Director Leslie Cole describes one of the newly designed courtrooms for children's cases. "Everything is smaller, more intimate. There's a lot of interactive technology."
The new technology includes touchscreen computers on each of the lawyers' tables so participants in proceedings can highlight, circle, or annotate information contained in testimony or depositions. The court also features a television kids can watch to relax, and a computer station where they can do homework.
Not only did Bexar County make the changes with children in mind, it made them with their input, asking children already familiar with courtroom settings what made them feel most uncomfortable about attending court hearings. "It wasn't the judge, it wasn't the people, it wasn't the attorneys," Cole recalls. It was the court reporter sitting at a table, staring directly at them.
As a result of the children's feedback, the court reporter for child abuse and neglect cases works at a desk angled away from where children sit to testify. Other amenities, such as a juice bar in the waiting room and the design and placement of the furniture, were all chosen to accommodate children, including chairs that can have their height adjusted. Overall, the modifications cost more than $4 million.
Sometimes there aren't enough funds to do an elaborate overhaul of an entire building, even though it might be needed, and changes have to be adapted on a smaller scale. Courts in Hawaii, Illinois, and Maryland have designated special places within their facilities expressly for children.
Since 1994, the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan, Illinois, has operated Kids' Korner, a colorful, inviting space for children visiting the court. Kids' Korner Coordinator Rosanne Sherwood says it is a clean, secure environment--a departure for some children who have chaotic home lives. Blue beanbag chairs, a colorful park mural, and a play kitchen "give them a fun, safe placeOeto let them be kids," Sherwood says.
Court filing fees provide the funding for Kids' Korner staff and allow them to care for up to nine children at a time. As part of a Give-A-Book Project, each child who visits Kids' Korner receives a book when they leave, and parents are encouraged to read it with their children. Local scout troops have donated books, and older residents have volunteered their time to read to the children. Volunteers and those who donate goods are able to tour the waiting room and courthouse to see where their donations are going. In this give-and-take environment, Sherwood says, "everybody wins."
The Howard County Circuit Court in Maryland has created a similar haven for its youngest patrons. A jungle-themed children's waiting room, with soft yellow walls and hand-painted animals interspersed among lush, green plant life is a scene from a child's picture book. An inscription on the mural explains the artist was inspired by images from The Great Kapok Tree, one of the many books tucked into a wicker table in the room.
Financed by a federal Children's Justice Act grant, the waiting room provides a peaceful place for parents to wait with their children among spotted cats and a family of frogs, just some of the animals depicted in the murals. For entertainment, the kids can read books or watch movies.
The children also receive a 30-page activity book if they want to learn more about the court process. What's Happening in Court: An Activity Book for Children Who Are Going to Court features games and activities for children with a range of abilities to inform them about court life and make them feel more comfortable and connected. Originally developed for California, the book has been adapted by Howard County court staff for their own use.
Another educational tool for the children is a video in which a judge guides a group of children of various ages, as well as the Baltimore Orioles team mascot, around the courthouse, explaining who staff members are and how the court process works. The video emphasizes the importance of speaking loudly while telling the truth and being oneself.
On display outside the room are educational pamphlets for parents in several languages on such topics as preventing child abuse, foster parenting, and how to communicate with children.
Similar to these efforts in Illinois and Maryland, the Hawaii Children's Justice Centers are examples of how judicial and legal organizations work together to establish collections of resources in a central location. Established under the Hawaii Judiciary by a 1986 statute, the justice centers include a child-friendly area complete with stuffed animals, books, and a video of Finding Nemo.
Although this area's primary focus is to give children the opportunity to relax and take their minds off why they are in court, the centers "help give children access to the judicial system," says Marianne Okamura, Program Director for the Oahu branch of the Children's Justice Centers. At the centers, medical officials, social workers, victim support staff, police officers, and others have a single safe place where they can interview children and discuss matters with each other, thereby reducing the number of interviews children have to undergo. Interviews can be videotaped at the centers to eliminate repetitive questioning by different agencies.
Peers Helping Their Peers
Not only are efforts under way to better accommodate the needs of young children who encounter the legal system, but court officials and others are also beginning to pay attention to the needs of teenagers facing the court system on criminal charges. In 2003, 1.7 million children under age 18 were arrested, and a 2001 census of juvenile offenders showed 104,413 children in juvenile correction facilities, according to data compiled by CWLA.
Autauga County, Alabama, has created a program of teens judging their peers. Juveniles charged with minor crimes can have their cases go before a teen court run by Peers Are Staying Straight: The NOBLE Idea Program (PASS), a local chapter of a larger organization established in honor of an Autauga County high school student killed in an alcohol-related accident in 1988. Under the program, peers serve as jurors, attorneys, clerks, and bailiffs. The only adult involved in the courtroom is the judge.
The PASS teen court handles about 40 misdemeanor cases a year that would otherwise be processed through the main juvenile court, thus easing staff workload. After hearing testimony, explains PASS Director Martha Ellis, teen jurors deliberate and decide on an appropriate sentence, ranging from an apology to ordering counseling or classes related to the offender's crime. According to Ellis, the recidivism rate for juvenile offenders in the program is only 17%.
Young offenders aren't the only ones who benefit from PASS, Ellis says. "A piece of this program that's phenomenal [but] we don't always measure [is] the impact it has on the volunteer students. They're connected with leaders in the community, such as the attorneys and adult volunteers, and they have a place to connect with students from all the schools in our county--public, private, home school. It allows them to grow and mature in their ability to speak. And they have to sign a pledge that they will remain alcohol-, tobacco-, and drug-free. To watch them grow and learn to be assertive and speak out in court and argue a case is really quite phenomenal."
Comfort from Canines
At least one courthouse in Washington State has discovered that animals can be of great comfort to the kids who walk through its doors.
At the request of King County (Seattle) court personnel, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization based in California, has placed one of its trained dogs in the courthouse to provide a more comforting environment for children and youth attending court. "This was an unusual request for us, but it fits within our mission statement," says CCI Instructor Amy McPherson.
CCI placed a Labrador/Golden Retriever mixed breed named Ellie in the court facility, where she walks the halls with her handler, never asking anything of the kids, simply being there when they need someone. McPherson acknowledges CCI's belief in the "ability of the dogs to minimize trauma."
Matching dogs with people or facilities is not a matter of which dog has the best skills or most knowledge. "All of our dogs are taught the same skills," McPherson says. CCI workers noticed Ellie's calm temperament and thought she would be a stabilizing resource for the kids in an otherwise hectic atmosphere. "She had a tenderness to her," McPherson explains. "She was comfortable with people going through emotions and a busy environment."
Spreading the Trend
Although CCI hasn't received additional requests for its dogs to be placed in courthouse facilities to "help kids in crises," McPherson says more placements are possible as a result of the success in Washington.
In Bexar County, Texas, the Hidalgo Foundation has received positive comments and praise from children's families, attorneys, judges, and child protective service workers since the newly renovated child abuse and neglect courts were reopened in January 2005, says Hidalgo's Cole.
As for the children's impressions, "The ones who get to spend some time in the children's waiting room are very appreciative of what's been done for them," Cole says. "Obviously, a child is not there for a good reason, and it's a very hard situation, but I do think there's a sense of comfort and security that lends itself to being well-received by the child."
In Hawaii, the modifications made to the Children's Justice Centers with the needs of the children in mind have resulted in organizational coordination that offers "a better quality of work for everyone, including the kids," Program Director Okamura says.
Although many courts are making modifications and establishing programs to better serve children, NASW's McFall Jean points out, "We continue to advocate for greater coordination and communication between the courts and social services, as well as increased community resources."
Mankaa Ngwa-Suh is a Contributing Editor to Children's Voice.
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