Hundreds of children go through Howard County Circuit Court each year, usually for traumatic reasons - they may be testifying in child-abuse cases or their parents could be divorcing.
It is an unpleasant experience made worse by having to wait for hours in the crowded, sometimes hectic courthouse hallways. But now they have their own sanctuary - a quaint waiting room, decorated with a jungle mural, that's solely for children - as Howard joins a growing number of courthouses locally and across the nation offering family waiting rooms.
"I really do believe it's important for them to have a comfortable waiting base, so their intimidation of the process is lessened a little bit," said Judge Diane O. Leasure, the Circuit Court's administrative judge.
There are similar waiting rooms in circuit courthouses in Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and in courthouses in states including California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as courts attempt to provide a respite for children during a stressful time.
"This has been one of the things that's needed everywhere," said Powel Welliver, the family law administrator for Carroll County Circuit Court. "It's a trend; it's encouraged."
About five children can fit in the Howard waiting room, which opened in September and was created with an $18,000 grant through the Children's Justice Act. They can watch videos, including one starring Leasure and the Orioles mascot that explains court proceedings, or read an activity book about the judicial process.
The courthouse has also added baby-changing tables to two of the restrooms.
"We wanted to do everything we could to make it less traumatic for the children to be there," said Beverly Heydon, the assistant county solicitor with the Office of Law.
Anne Arundel County considered operating its family waiting room, which opened in 2001, like a day care but didn't have the means to meet legal requirements like restrooms, a staff and running water, said Robert G. Wallace, the county's court administrator.
"Conceptually, it's a great idea, but then you have to have the resources to make it work," he said.
Baltimore County court administrator Peter J. Lally said the growing number of family rooms is partially a result of the creation in 1998 of the Maryland judiciary's Circuit Court family divisions in the state's five largest jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The division offers services including mediation and parenting classes in the courthouses.
"Ever since the creation of the family divisions, the courts are more attuned to customer service and trying to make things more accessible for families," Lally said.
Baltimore County opened its waiting room in 1999, and Lally said he would like to open more.
"I could use one on each floor, but I just don't have space," he said of the six-floor courthouse.
In Carroll, waiting rooms opened in the historic courthouse and in the courthouse annex last summer, full of toys and videotapes, and have proved popular.
"Frankly, the only time we have unhappy children is when they have to leave," Welliver said. "It's a very friendly room for children, and they love it."
Welliver said the room can be used for hours by children who may need a distraction while their parents are filing court papers or by children who need to be sheltered from an offending parent during a domestic violence case.
"They've been exposed enough to what's already happening with their parents; they certainly don't need to listen to their parents talk to lawyers in the hallway or to the judge," she said.
Welliver said one of the obstacles to courthouses creating waiting rooms is finding space in the usually cramped buildings. In the small Howard courthouse, the waiting room was created when the Sheriff's Office moved its offices within the courthouse, leaving a few vacant rooms. During renovations at the Baltimore County courthouse, officials turned what was supposed to be a storage closet into the waiting room.
Quiet in Arundel
But the family rooms are used sparingly in some places, like Anne Arundel. Wallace, Anne Arundel's court administrator, said he's not sure why.
"It isn't used nearly to the extent I hoped it would be," he said. "Sometimes, I walk by [the waiting room], and there's people in the hall but no one is in there."