Court to open room for kids

County hopes area with toys, games will ease parents' stress

Anne Arundel

April 02, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

After the 2-year-old stood on a bench, squiggled in his mother's arms and babbled loudly, Liz Grogan handed her son to her husband, Wayne.

"Here, it's your turn," she sighed. "Why don't you walk him around?"

The parents had passed an hour waiting in Anne Arundel Courthouse by trying to keep the toddler under control.

"Our babysitter canceled out at the last minute," Liz Grogan explained.

Their courthouse morning started with toddler Benjamin announcing his arrival on a security telephone. The wall phone, used to identify people who want to enter the judicial corridor, is waist-high on a standing adult - easily within a child's reach.

"He ran and picked up the phone to the judge's chambers. He picked it up and said, `Hello, hello?' I had to run and put it down fast," Liz Grogan said.

She wished, she said, that a better place existed to wait with an energetic child.

Starting today, there will be. Anne Arundel joins the small but growing number of circuit courthouses that provide waiting areas for families.

Officials are outfitting a large, unused room with a television, toys and computer games, giving grown-ups with children a less stressful place to wait.

"It is a more friendly environment," said Jennifer K. Cassel, family law administrator for the court. "And it can, at times when you have kids doing sock-surfing, be very distracting to have these kids out in the hallway with nothing to do."

Courthouse waiting areas that accommodate children are a trend that has followed on the heels of family court development and court efforts to better accommodate the public.

Court decision-makers are finding that the volume of cases, especially in juvenile court and with the domestic matters that make up family courts, brings more children to court. On a given day, half of many courts' dockets are nonsupport, custody, neglect and other family crises. A hearing may be short, but the wait for it can be an endurance test for an adult, let alone a child.

Emerging trend

Family waiting areas, some providing supervision for children, are emerging around the country. States that have them include Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

A 1986 California law requires all courthouse remodeling and design to feature space where children and families can wait, according to a California Judicial Council spokeswoman. The law provided no money, but starting in 1999, localities were allowed to levy surcharges to pay for the waiting areas. So far, 14 jurisdictions have set up 66 such waiting rooms, some with paid staff.

Maryland does not require family waiting areas for circuit courts.

But with diapers being changed on hallway benches, judges' clerks entertaining crying youngsters in chambers, children running in the corridors and the rising exasperation level of the already-stressed adults who brought the children, some courthouses have instituted family waiting sections.

About three years ago, Baltimore County turned what was supposed to be a storage closet into a family waiting room. Court administrator Peter J. Lally said it is so regularly used that he wishes it were bigger.

Baltimore, which has a juvenile court waiting area, will have two areas for children later this year in its family division, said Judge Marcella A. Holland, who heads the family court. Students of Maryland Institute, College of Art will paint murals there, and artwork by city children supervised by the institute will be on display, said Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller.

Prince George's County, which has had a family waiting area since the early 1990s, recently refurbished the children's section of the waiting room in its family law center, said Suzanne H. James, court administrator.

Carroll County will evaluate its space after a new District Court is completed in a year and a half and consider an area suited to children, said Bobbie L. Erb, court administrator.

Montgomery and Howard counties do not have family waiting rooms.

Anne Arundel is the smallest of the five courts - Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, and Baltimore are the others - with a family court division, geared toward handling family disputes more efficiently and with more sensitivity. Experts say that although they can't make it fun to go through a custody dispute or abuse case, they are trying to make coming to court less intimidating.

"It's part of the general movement in family court reform," said Pamela C. Ortiz, executive director of the family services program for Maryland's courts. "We really think that by making a courthouse family-friendly, we will make it easier for people to come to get protection, go through a divorce or whatever they want."

Anne Arundel's blue-carpeted waiting room will not be limited to people in court for family issues, Cassel said.

Because hearings involving the children or their parents - or both - take place all around the courthouse, the waiting room has a paging system.

Preparation

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