ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Trial Court judges and other court staff believe a youngster at the center of a child protective proceeding is much more than a court file.

“These cases are their lives. This is about protecting the children, and research supports the fact that kids do fine coming into court,” said Family Court Judge Brian Berger. “We’re very excited to finally make the court more accessible to children.”

Berger’s comments came during an open house Thursday launching the new Children’s Waiting Area at the Berrien County Courthouse. It will be staffed by volunteers and will be open on days the court’s Family Division is hearing child protective proceedings. 

“This is phenomenal,” said Judge Mabel Mayfield, the presiding judge in the family court. “From the child’s perspective, this will be a comfort zone. Each of these cases are unique because each child is unique.”

Besides toys, stuffed animals, books and a drawing board, the room sports a mural painted by local artist Kathy Zerler. It features a tree with its roots deep in the ground and the words, “Roots down, branches up, grow and bloom where you’re planted.”

Previously, children attending child protective proceedings would wait in a sometimes crowded hallway outside the courtroom, surrounded by strangers. Having a designated waiting area just for them will likely result in more children coming to the hearings that involve them, said Jean Lawrence, intake manager in the court’s family division. 

Child protective proceedings are hearings held in juvenile court regarding families in which there are concerns about the safety and well-being of children. Lawrence said research has shown that it’s important for the children to be present, if they want to be. 

In 2017, the Berrien County Trial Court’s Family Division was chosen by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges as an implementation site for projects intended to improve outcomes for abused and neglected children and their families. Judge Berger, the lead judge for Berrien’s implementation site project, said the group working on the project identified making the court more accessible to children as a high priority. 

Lawrence said the project is about encouraging more children to come to court and provide input in the cases involving them. 

“This is about them letting the judge know their opinion about things, feeling like they have some input about what’s going on in their lives. The older foster kids, they want to be involved, instead of decisions being made outside their presence by people they don’t even know,” Lawrence said. “Being here gives them some control back in a life in which they normally have no control.”

She said for court staff, that helps keep the focus on where it should be, which is the children. 

“You can look at a court file. But to have the child actually present makes a big difference in how people work together and collaborate,” Lawrence said.

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