The Leighton Criminal Courthouse is no place for children. But each day, dozens of infants, toddlers and pre-teens find themselves in the dingy hallways or planted on the courtroom benches, towed along with the adults in their lives.
As of Thursday, court staff will have officially made room for kids.
Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans on Wednesday toured the Children’s Room, a brightly lit, colorful addition to a building where Cook County prosecutors each day air dark stories.
The facility, occupying space on the courthouse’s first floor that had been a concessions stand nicknamed the “Gangbangers’ Cafe” or “Gangbangers’ Lounge” by courthouse denizens, will offer free day care for courthouse visitors, be they defendants, witnesses or jurors with no other options.
“We want to shield the children from the circumstances that may have caused their parents to be here,” Evans said. “Trauma of all kinds might lead to cases emerging here. We want to shield children from those kind of traumatic experiences and give them the opportunity to see a positive side to going to the courthouse.”
The Children’s Room will open at 8:30 a.m. weekdays, and has room for 27 children, supervised by three full-time staff, Evans said. Evans said he hoped to recruit students from local colleges to assist staff, and eventually add nurses and health specialists.
The branch in Rolling Meadows is the lone courthouse without a daycare center, but one is set to open there this summer, said Sylvia McCullum, director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic. Similar children’s rooms have been operating at courthouses across the county since the 1970s, but McCullum said the Leighton Courthouse will likely have the busiest one.
Despite the adult content of many court proceedings, on most days at the courthouse, it’s not unusual to see children sitting uneasily on parents’ laps in bond court, or munching Cheetos in a stairwell while a parent waits out a probation hearing. Sheriff’s deputies sometimes rock infants outside the doors of Central Bond Court, while parents wait for a case to be called.
Given the adult content of most criminal court testimony, Judge Maria Kuriakos Ciesil warns parents whenever she sees children in the courtroom gallery. Kuriakos Ciesil, who presides over bond hearings— which come shortly after arrest and often leave little time to arrange child care— said she’s often surprised how many parents are stuck in court with children.
“I always tell the gallery, I don’t mind if there are children in the courtroom, so long as they don’t create a disturbance, Kuriakos Ciesil said. “These are sensitive cases; kids aren’t dumb.
“I’m glad they have a room where there are toys to play with, instead of hearing about some of the darkness of our society.”
Standing in front of a packed with pristine coloring books and toys, McCullum said Children’s Rooms at other courthouses have proved to be a hit.
“After the parent leaves, they see all of the toys and all of the games and they’re happy,” she said. “When the parent comes to retrieve them, they’re crying again because they don’t have to leave.”
A few hours after Evans, Chief Criminal Division Judge Leroy K. Martin and other courthouse dignitaries left the brand-new Children’s Room, Paula Thompson peered in a window at walls lined with books and toys, holding her 3-year-old son, Donye.
“I was looking to see if it was open,” said Thompson, who was unable to find a relative to take care of Donye while she went to watch a hearing in a case involving the toddler’s older brother.
“(Donye) was pretty good, if he acts up, I just would take him out in the hall. But this court is not a good place for little children. Whoever had this idea for a daycare, tell them congratulations.”