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Court Care protects children from the harsh realities of the judicial system

What would you do if you were a single mother, couldn't find a babysitter, and had to go to court to press charges against your child's father for missing child support payments? Would you take your child with you, knowing that she might see you and her father arguing or fighting? Or would you make her stay out in the hallway by herself, and hope that she wouldn't wander off?

Though it may seem unlikely, this is just one example of the kinds of scenarios that take place in courts around the country every day. And it's estimated that an average of 100 children per day accompany their parents to El Paso County's courts. Kids are forced to watch their parents on trial, listen to requests for restraining orders in domestic violence and sexual abuse cases, and sit through many other criminal cases that are inappropriate, and may be psychologically harmful.

Though there is an increasing amount of awareness about the distressing effects on children when they see their parents in situations of conflict, the court system, up until now, has had few resources to address the problem.

Enter Janice Weiland, the founding chair of the Court Care project in Colorado Springs. Fifty years ago, before the word was even spoken above a whisper, Janice had to sit in a courtroom and watch her parents' divorce. She still remembers how devastatingly torn between them she felt. "My dad was on the other side of the aisle in the courtroom. He attempted to entice me to join him by offering me a piece of candy but my mother would not let me go. ... I knew something was terribly wrong."

As a member of the board at the Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence (now called "T.E.S.S.A.") in 1997, Weiland saw hundreds of mothers pass through the center as they made requests for restraining orders. "There were so many little kids there at times that you had to step over them."

When Weiland asked what those mothers did with their children when they went to court, she was told that most took their kids with them. "These are children who have probably just witnessed something terrible at home," Weiland said, "and now they have to go to court."

Several years earlier a committee had been formed to try to provide child care for children whose parents were in court. But it was difficult to find a place to put a child-care center, and the committee had disbanded.

Weiland decided to revive the effort, obtained the files from the old committee, and began contacting its original members. Most of the original members were still eager to find a solution, and they began meeting once a month over the course of a year, modeling their program after Denver's Warm Welcome Child Care Center, which served over 1,800 children in its first year.

At the end of that year, a former president of the Junior League told Weiland she might want to consider approaching the Junior League of Colorado Springs with the Court Care project since they would be able to provide volunteers and administration.

The Junior League accepted Court Care enthusiastically in 1998, marking their 75th year by making it their signature project. Its official mission is "to provide families with a friendly, convenient place for the short-term, drop-in care of children in order to ensure them an appropriate environment within the Court House while their parent or legal guardian is involved in a legal proceeding."

In a few short months, Junior League director Cathy Wicklund was able to implement free Jury Care and Probation Care programs that provided child care for people serving jury duty, and parents meeting with probation officers.

This past September, after reaching an agreement with Judge Theresa Cisneros, who mandated that children not be allowed in her courtroom, the Junior League was able to start the pilot Court Care program with the help of Diane Price's Colorado Springs Child Nursery Centers.

Editor's note: This story is the fifth in the series on the nine recipients of the Independence Community Fund.

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