On the safe side Better, safer building for victims of domestic violence opens
Thursday, September 29, 2005
by Jonathan Lipman
In Cook County's cramped domestic violence courthouse, victims sometimes get backed into corners by their attackers, who yell or plead with them to drop charges.The chaotic and dangerous scene in the building's crowded hallways should be only a memory after the unveiling today of a new custom-designed courthouse in Chicago's Near West Side community.
The new $51 million courthouse will host all criminal misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Chicago, some proceedings for felony domestic violence cases, and civil order of protection cases from throughout the county.
The old building at 13th Street and Michigan Avenue will shut down by Oct. 11, moving all cases to the new facility. Over three years, a 113-year-old warehouse was converted into the bright brick, glass and wood building at 555 W. Harrison St.
"It's the county's oldest building and its newest," said Elizabeth Melas, Cook County's deputy director of capital planning and policy. "We added an atrium and plaza to the north and made the back (of the building) the front. It's 90 percent new."
Last year, 26,954 orders of protection and 12,477 criminal domestic violence cases were filed in Cook County.
Along with "victim safe" waiting spaces, the new courthouse promises better child care, 10 spacious courtrooms and a combination of services not possible in the old office building on Michigan Avenue, which has served as the domestic violence courthouse for 28 years.
"The (old) building, architecturally, was not structured to be a court. They made it into a court," said Vickii Coffey, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women's Network.
"It's an old building to boot," said Dawn Dalton, director of the Jane Addams Hull House Association's domestic violence court advocacy program. "Last week, we only had one elevator working, and they're very small to begin with."
The small elevators are more than an inconvenience. Dalton said some of the worst victim intimidation takes place there.
"If you're a victim and your abuser is sardined next to you ... the opportunity to continue to threaten that victim is just ripe," Dalton said.
Even when a victim's alleged attacker is in jail, Dalton said, "the abuser's family comes up to the victim and says things like, 'If you don't drop the charges, we're going to come after you.' It's a real volatile environment."
At the new courthouse, everyone coming in will be sorted by gender and status at the door by sheriff's staff. Victims will be allowed into a segregated lobby, where a battery of social and court services will be available. From there, they can take a private elevator up to separate waiting rooms.
"They don't need to go into the public space again until their case is called," Dalton said.
Also important to victims is what Melas called "one-stop shopping." While criminal cases are now heard at 1340 S. Michigan, civil court orders of protection are heard at 28 N. Clark St.
"Lots of times what happens is women may come to the court building not knowing what option they want to implement," Coffey said. "Once they get there, they may make that decision and then find this is not the place they can do it. And then that may be a reason not to pursue (action)."
Child care facilities also are being upgraded, Melas said, with an attached clinic that will screen children for physical and emotional problems.
The site of the new courthouse was controversial in 2002. County commissioners originally voted to build it downtown, along the Chicago River. But Mayor Richard Daley objected, saying the valuable site should stay on the tax rolls, and a courthouse didn't match his vision for riverfront development.
Although it meant more expense and an additional year, the county quickly agreed to the West Loop site, which is less accessible by public transportation than a downtown site.
But the building has opened on schedule and $13 million under budget.
"It's just a beautiful building," said Commissioner Deborah Sims, who led the committee overseeing the project. "If we haven't done anything else good this year, this building is a good building."