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Child-care room in courthouses should be a county priority

Monday, December 19, 2005
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: Cook County has child-care facilities in some courthouses but not all of them. The cost is too high to construct them in Bridgeview and other locations, officials say.
WE SAY: In relative terms, the cost involved is low. If county officials really care about kids as much as they say they do, they should find the money to get these rooms built.

Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner has written a couple of columns in recent weeks about the lack of a children's room at the Bridgeview courthouse, which houses the 5th District of Cook County Circuit Court.

The Markham courthouse, where the 6th District is headquartered, has had a children's room since the mid-1990s, when the presiding judge at the time, Sheila Murphy, insisted on setting one up. The children's room is a kid-friendly safe haven in the court building, a place where a parent can leave a child under responsible supervision while the parent takes care of whatever court business brings him or her to Markham that day.

That court business can be anything from a dad answering a traffic citation to a mom testifying against her husband in a domestic abuse case. As Kadner has pointed out, plenty of things get said in those courtrooms that a loving parent would not want his or her child to hear, whether it's some stranger explaining why he had to plow into another car while he was drunk, or the child's mother describing the mental or physical abuse she has been exposed to by her child's father.

In the children's room in Markham, a child can find toys and games to play with other kids, under the supervision of trained adults. They also can be examined by qualified care-givers, if the parent consents, for injuries, illnesses or other problems.

There is also a child-care room in Maywood's district court branch and at three court facilities in Chicago. But five facilities in Chicago and three in the suburbs, including Bridgeview, don't have such accommodations. Why not? Too expensive.

Cook County has too many other responsibilities, a perennial problem coping with a deficit and, apparently, more important priorities.

A spokesman for the chief judge of the court system said children's rooms are a priority. But the cost of preparing a space for such a use is estimated at $150,000. The cost of staffing is estimated at $115,000 per location each year. If the county built a room at each location, that would be more than $1 million. Staff costs would be almost $1 million a year.

That's a lot of money, of course.

But the county spends $3 billion a year on all the things it does for us taxpayers. And we have to believe that Cook County's elected officials could find $150,000 a year for the next eight years to build children's rooms, if they really wanted to do it. Sometimes we wonder if that much money isn't lost in the seat cushions in the various county buildings.

In this space last week we criticized county officials for planning yet another round of tax hikes on cigarettes and hotel rooms, to pay for additional spending. Today we're calling for more spending on children's rooms in the courthouse, which some might say is contradictory. We don't believe it is. We believe the county should eliminate wasteful, unnecessary spending, but we believe children's rooms would be neither unnecessary nor wasteful.

There is the possibility of seeking donations to help with such projects as a way of keeping down the cost to taxpayers. The Maywood facility is run with the help of the Loyola University Medical Center, which sends social workers and nurses to evaluate children and work in the room. Loyola volunteered to help. Other hospitals might be able to help at other locations if county officials asked them to.

Maybe some of the high-powered law firms in town would be willing to donate a tiny percentage of their proceeds to help build and run such facilities. We know that lawyers are good-hearted, generous people who often get unfairly criticized and would love to show people what they're really like.

The point is that protecting our children is probably the single most important responsibility we have. Everyone knows that; every politician says that. Protecting our children from the kinds of things they can see and hear in our courtrooms ought to be near the top of the county's to-do list.

Do Commissioners Stroger, Quigley, Claypool and Peraica — all of whom want to be county board president — have any thoughts on how to address this issue? We hope so.

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