Reducing the stress on young witnesses

Mitchell courthouse waiting room designed to calm children's fears

December 06, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

It's an image that social worker Shannon Wood can't get out of her mind: A 7-year-old girl sits for two days on a dirty tile floor inside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore, playing with hand-me-down Barbie dolls and waiting to testify as a witness to her mother's murder.

Wood, a licensed forensic social worker who interviews child witnesses for the city state's attorney's office, said she hated knowing that children such as the 7-year-old are confined to an uncomfortable waiting room with few toys and gray decor during the trial process.

"They're doing what is probably the hardest thing they'll ever do, and this is the best we have to offer them?" she said.

Wood and the state's attorney's office - with financial assistance from Grace Fellowship Church - are trying to create a place that's a little more colorful and comfortable for the hundreds of children who testify each year. Some are witnesses to horrendous adult crimes, and others are victims of the more than 300 felony child-abuse cases prosecuted each year.

Howard County opened a similar waiting room in September. They can also be found in courthouses in Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

The new waiting area in the Mitchell courthouse is a small space carved out of a third-floor office suite in the family violence unit. It's still mostly empty, save for a bright blue couch and red chair, and a couple of small bins of toys.

It needs a lot of work. A smashed electrical outlet pokes up from the bland brown-and-beige tile floor. Frosted-glass windows encase the room, meaning children could overhear prosecutors discussing domestic-assault and child-abuse cases.

Still, Wood said, just having a place of their own will help young witnesses who are in a stressful situation take a break and just be kids.

Julie Drake, a prosecutor who heads the family violence unit, said the sights and sounds of the rest of the courthouse can be terrifying. Prosecutors describe in detail horrific crimes during trials, inmates clank down the hallways in shackles, and children can encounter relatives of the person they are testifying against in the adult waiting room.

"Let's face it, the atmosphere in the courthouse can be very bleak," Drake said. And the adult waiting room wasn't appropriate for children, she said.

Her unit used to occupy the same office space, and she said prosecutors would hear children screaming and crying over a half-wall that separated them from the waiting room.

Grace Fellowship in Timonium made funding the Child Witness Waiting Room part of its Thanksgiving offering last month and planned to take up another collection during services over this past weekend. With that money, prosecutors hope to revamp the room to include a television and DVD player, toys, handheld electronic games and a refrigerator stocked with juice and snacks.

The Rev. Ben Abell said the church became interested in the waiting room when one of its 3,500 members, Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, brought it to his attention.

"Being part of creating a safe place for children was something that was really in our hearts," Abell said.

Wood, an artist before she became a social worker, said she wants it to be painted in bright colors and have a place for children to hang their artwork.

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