IRWINDALE — After more than two years of trying to locate a site, county officials are beginning negotiations that could lead to construction of a $19-million satellite courthouse in this city to handle cases involving abused and neglected children.
Court officials say the building, which would house five courtrooms and offices of the Children's Services Department, county counsel and Sheriff's Department, is needed to ease the burden of increased caseloads handled by the Dependency Court. Since the mid-1970s, the number of children served by the court has jumped from 3,000 a year to about 16,000 annually.
The satellite facility would primarily handle the 20% of those cases involving San Gabriel Valley residents. County officials say it would be an experiment in serving abused and neglected children and their families closer to where they live.
Near Children's Center
The site at Ramona Boulevard and the 605 Freeway was chosen because it is about a mile away from the MacLaren Children's Center, the county's only emergency housing facility for abused and neglected children. Up to 250 children are temporarily housed there, according to center officials.
"The family would be treated in the community, visitation of the children would be easier and treatment could be geared toward the work hours and needs of the population," said Charlene Saunders, coordinator of the Dependency Court, which is part of the Superior Court.
She said private agencies that help families by providing such services as parenting classes and counseling would also be encouraged to move closer to the proposed facility.
The county Board of Supervisors has agreed to begin negotiations with CalMat Co. to construct a 45,000-square-foot facility on 2.3 acres in Irwindale, according to David Yonashiro, chief analyst for the county's chief administrative office. The facility would be part of 50-acre planned business park that CalMat is developing.
Yonashiro said that although the total cost will not be known until negotiations are completed, the company has submitted a proposal to lease the building to the county for $760,000 a year. After 25 years, by which time the county would have paid about $19 million in rent, the county would have the option of buying the facility at a nominal fee. If the Board of Supervisors approves a contract with CalMat, Yonashiro said it would take about 18 months to construct the building, which could be opened by the fall of 1988.
Children are handled by the Dependency Court after the Children's Services Department, the county's child protective unit, determines that allegations of physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect made by professionals or people close to the family have merit, Saunders said.
If the department decides the child is not at risk but the family might need help, the department may refer the case to other social agencies. The department could either refer the case to the court or monitor help provided by the other agencies, Saunders said.
If it appears that a child is in danger, the department can take the child from the home. A Dependency Court judge then decides what happens to the child and if the allegations are true. The Dependency Court does not handle criminal charges that may be filed against the parents. The judge has the option of returning children to their homes, placing them in foster care, seeking guardians or putting the children up for adoption.
"Our primary goal at all times is that the child should stay at home," Saunders said. "The next level is to remove the child from the home, but seek to reunify the family. The next level (is to determine) if it is in the best interest of the child that you remove the child and then place the child with someone who could provide a stable environment."
It is not certain where the judges would be obtained for the proposed facility.
County officials are seeking funds from the state to create more than 40 judgeships, some of which would be assigned to the proposed Irwindale facility. If the state Legislature does not provide funding for the new judgeships, five judges would be transferred to the Irwindale facility.
Officials are pressing for the new building because they said that dealing with children in the Criminal Courts Building is inappropriate.
"We're a courthouse not unlike other courthouses," said Saunders, adding that the Dependency Court needs more space for conferences, places to separate children from their parents and waiting rooms.
Designed for Jury Trials
Just as important, Saunders said, the Criminal Courts Building is inappropriate because of the messages it sends to the children. About half of the 15 courtrooms now used in dependency cases were designed for criminal jury trials.
Saunders said children might wonder, "What crime did I commit? Maybe all they did was tell someone that someone abused them. Is that a crime?
"We're trying to care for children. When they look at 32-foot ceilings, maybe that's too formal."
The Dependency Court functions, once spread throughout the county, were centralized in the early 1970s in five courtrooms housed in the Metro Annex, an old courthouse at 1st Street and Broadway in Los Angeles that has since been torn down, said Frank Zolin, executive officer of the Superior Court.
As the number of cases rose, the court was temporarily moved in 1978 into the Criminal Courts Building downtown, Zolin said.
However, what started out as a temporary solution turned into a long-term problem as the Dependency Court's needs grew and money was not available to provide for a larger location. Zolin said that in the early 1980s the number of cases began growing each year by 40%, and by 1985 the Dependency Court expanded from seven courts to 15.
The Board of Supervisors adopted a motion in 1984 calling for county staff to explore the feasibility of decentralizing the Dependency Court operation, Zolin said.
"We were so desperate for space, we agreed," Zolin said.