Room gives kids space to open up

Area at city courthouse aims to be a haven for witnesses and victims being interviewed


With some tropical paint, sand-colored carpet and a donation from a Timonium church, a once-drab third-floor room of a downtown courthouse is being transformed into something resembling an aquarium.

What used to be a conference room at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Circuit Courthouse is becoming an interview and waiting room for children who are victims or witnesses of crimes in the city.

A mural outside the room depicts a tank full of fish, and the inside walls and ceiling are painted chartreuse and lavender. Wood molding has been covered with pearlized paint to resemble the inside of a seashell.

"The idea is to give children a soothing place," said Shannon B. Wood, a forensic social worker with the prosecutors' office. "We owe it to them to not have them function in a gross, disgusting place."

Hundreds of children testify each year in Circuit Court. Some are witnesses to crimes as serious as murder, and many others are victims of the more than 300 felony child abuse cases prosecuted each year.

Similar rooms can be found in courthouses in Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

The process of creating a special place for the city's youngest victims and witnesses began about a year ago when a collection was taken at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium.

The church has made a $10,000 donation and will continue to pay until the room is done, perhaps by the end of the year.

Ben Abell, senior leadership pastor of Grace, which has a congregation of about 3,500, said the project was a "no-brainer" for the church.

"We're always trying to bless our community," he said. "We live our faith where we work and play, not just inside the four walls of the church."

Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office, said she suggested the project to her church after seeing firsthand the courthouse conditions to which children are subjected.

"We've all sat on benches in court with whiny kids next to us who are hungry and bored," she said. "The courthouse is so cold and austere."

It can be a scary place, too, with shackled and chained men and women trudging the same hallways that child witnesses sometimes use as their waiting room.

Enter the aquarium. Children will be greeted with a mural that includes a school of Nemo-like clown fish, purple fish with pink polka dots and blue fish peeking out from behind strands of aquatic plant life.

Prosecutors estimate the project is about a month away from completion. The carpet must still be laid, and toys, books and furniture must be purchased and arranged just so. The room will be outfitted with cameras to record interviews with children witnesses.

Grace parishioner Mary Landavere has been decorating the room. With a degree in social work and a background in decorative painting, she is unusually qualified for the job.

"I've always wanted to do something that links the two," she said.

One recent day, she set a conch shell on a table for inspiration as she put the finishing touches on the mural.

She said an aquarium was ideal because its colors are calming and natural - but also engaging for children.

Julie Drake, a prosecutor who heads the family violence unit, said she's thrilled with the new room.

"The only problem," she said, gesturing to her institution-beige-colored walls, "is that it really points to a need for some color throughout this building."

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