New family law offices in Carroll aim to calm

Children's playroom helps youngsters in trying time

November 02, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Between the entrances to two Carroll County courtrooms is a door with a paper sign reading "Please walk in."

Anybody who does finds a suite of offices where parents can work out custody battles while their children play in a room adorned with a mural of forest animals frolicking in a green meadow.

This is the new home of the Carroll Circuit Court's Family Law Administration in the Courthouse Annex. In the past, children would sometimes amuse themselves in a judge's chambers while the grownups settled their legal differences.

Now the kids not only have a well-appointed waiting room, their parents have a one-stop resource center where they can fill out court forms, research domestic violence laws and meet with pro bono attorneys.

"When we have somebody come in with four children, you can imagine how restless they get," said Powel Welliver, family law administrator for Carroll County.

"This way we can separate them from the conversations their parents are having with our staff about domestic violence. In that room they can watch TV, play games and do something other than listening to those stories again."

On Friday, the Family Law Administration held a Halloween-theme open house that showed off its newly consolidated offices. With a Scooby-Doo program playing on a television set in the playroom, Goth-girl-costumed Crystal Mack bounced a friend's infant daughter - who was dressed as a skunk - on her knee.

"I try to get kids in here," said Mack, who often interviews abuse victims as the domestic violence court services coordinator. "Children don't need to be traumatized twice. They've already seen it going on and don't need to hear about it again."

To furnish the new quarters, the family law office showed its resourcefulness in obtaining castoffs from other county departments and soliciting donations from hardware stores, companies and residents.

Among the acquisitions: "putrid pea green vinyl chairs reupholstered by State Use Industries," as they are described on a mounted list of donated items, and curtains from District Court offices.

Courthouse workers marveled at the transformation of the offices, which had been occupied by the Department of Juvenile Services. The new offices give a central home to the 5-year-old family law staff, which was once scattered throughout the annex.

Welliver said the waiting room has been in use since May, but the finishing touches weren't put on until last week.

Inside, fire engines, board games, puzzles, stuffed animals and heaps of colorful children's books provide comfort and activities.

"I wanted a child to have a smile on her face when she walked in," Welliver said. "I think of it as a refuge."

She recalled one day when she approached a parent sitting in the open area between courtrooms, where the woman's five children were running wild.

"She was suspicious at first, but I had the feeling they were going to be here awhile. I invited them in and they stayed for three hours," she said.

Adults can also find sanctuary in these offices, Welliver said.

"We try to keep a calm atmosphere," she said.

Parents are free to use a law library and a computer connected to the Internet. The Maryland Legal Assistance Network is the default homepage where clients can start their research; if they need help, a staffer is nearby.

"It's going to reduce a lot of confusion for people," Welliver said. "Instead of just handing them forms, right there they'll have a legal library with computers. They'll see everything right there."

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