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Protecting kids in court ought to be a priority

Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

Each weekday, thousands of people file into the 5th District Municipal Courthouse in Bridgeview.

Many of them are women, some seeking orders of protection against abusive husbands.

They often bring their children because there is no one left at home to care for them.

So the youngsters sit and listen as Mom describes how Dad threatened to kill her, or beat her with his fists or engaged in other unseemly behavior.

Dad may call Mom "a witch," or worse, spelling out in detail why the judge should consider the woman nothing more than a lying, cheating slut.

Everyone in the courtroom, judges, lawyers and parents, would tell you they want to protect these children.

So what are they doing there?

Cook County's 6th Municipal District Courthouse, in Markham, found a solution to this problem 10 years ago.

It's called the K.C. Conlon Children's Room, named for the deceased son of Cook County Judge Claudia and former Rich Township Supervisor Kevin Conlon.

At the urging of the presiding judge at that time, Sheila Murphy, the county set up the room on the first floor of the courthouse and staffed it.

Any parent who has to come to court can sign their child in to the room, which has toys and games for the children.

The same adult who signed the child in must sign the child out.

It's not strictly for the offspring of parents involved in domestic disputes.

A single father who has to appear in court for a traffic violation can leave his children there while he waits for his case to be called.

The K.C. Conlon Room was the first of its type in Cook County.

It was such a success that it's been repeated in just about every other county courthouse.

The Bridgeview court building is one of two in Cook County without such a facility, I am told.

"The presiding judge in Bridgeview has been trying to get funding for a children's room for several years," said Jean Tobin, who works out of the courthouse for the Cook County Family Violence Coordinating Council.

"You just don't want the little ones in a courtroom listening to all the things that get said.

"Also, it can take time for a court case to be called. Children can become restless. It's better for everyone if they have someplace where they can play."

Apparently, Cook County has been unable to find the funding for a children's room in Bridgeview.

So you will see children in the halls. Children in the courtrooms.

Children exposed to all the things that take place in courtrooms and all the people who find themselves in such places.

With the political focus on protecting children these days, you would expect a children's room to be a priority. Apparently, it is not.

"It not only protects children from what they might hear in a courtroom," said Kevin Conlon, now a partner in the political consulting firm of Wilhelm and Conlon, "but it gives care givers a chance to look them over.

"Do the children have burn marks on their arms? Do they need scarves, warm winter coats or hats? Do they need a meal?

"All of that takes place in Markham," Conlon said. "The good that has been done there is immeasurable."

It also provides a rallying point for courthouse personnel and community residents.

In Markham, people regularly donate clothes and toys to the children's room, knowing it will serve a good purpose.

"And it's just nice to see children playing when you go into a courthouse," Conlon said.

"It's a reminder to everyone there about what's really important in life. Even if you are going through a divorce, it forces you to keep things in perspective and remember the children should come first."

There's really no need for a child to be in court when a parent is ordered by a judge to take a urine taste to make sure she is drug-free.

And if Mom tries to keep her children outside the courtroom and misses hearing her case being called, well, that can create another set of problems.

Sheriff's police, acting as guards in the courtrooms, and judges do their best to accommodate everyone.

But a court building is no place for children.

Typically, it can take more than an hour for a case to be called.

Imagine trying to deal with three or four small hyperactive children during that time period.

Just think of the potty breaks you would need.

And sometimes, people aren't very careful about the language they use in the court hallways.

Children who already are having a tough time at home just don't need to be subjected to all the stuff that goes on inside court buildings in Cook County.

I placed a call to Cook County's chief judge, Timothy Evans, to ask him why the Bridgeview children's room hadn't been made a priority. I didn't get any response.

There are more important things, I suppose.

Then again, maybe not.

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