Elaine Brown pushed her 10-month-old daughter Charlene slowly back and forth in her stroller in the first floor hallway of North courthouse in Fullerton. The baby was sobbing mightily. Tow-headed son Kenny, 3, ran ahead, shouting, ignoring his mother's pleas for quiet.
Brown, a Fullerton homemaker who had been charged with running a red light, said a bailiff had asked her to wait outside the traffic court until the judge was ready to hear her case because he was concerned that the children would be noisy.
"I had nobody else to leave the children with," Brown, 26, said. She could not afford a baby sitter, she said, because her husband had landed a job as a graphic artist just the week before after being on workers' compensation for three years.
As the hands on the clock in the hallway slowly moved from 9:30 past 10:30 a.m., an impatient Brown pushed Charlene's stroller from the corridor into the foyer leading to the courtroom. She peeked through a narrow window.
Charlene's crying echoed in the foyer. Kenny whooped as he ran around the enclosure. "I'm going to spank you," Brown warned. "You're a little terrorizer."
Kenny scampered into the corridor, pulled the top off a trash can and began banging it up and down on the can. By now Charlene had climbed out of her stroller and stumbled into the corridor to watch Kenny.
A man leaving traffic court slid by her as she stood in the middle of the doorway and looked back over his shoulder in annoyance. An embarrassed Brown scooped up the baby and held her.
Brown is not the only parent to have struggled with children in the courthouse. On this day, as on every weekday, several dozen young children accompanied their parents there--to the dismay of clerks, judges and courthouse workers.
In fact, children crying in courtrooms and playing in hallways are disrupting an increasing number of trials throughout Orange County, judges and court administrators say, as defendants and witnesses--as well as their friends and relatives--take their preschoolers to court with them.
"I've had to send children of witnesses out into the hallway because they were making so much noise," said Municipal Judge Linda Miller. "It's not safe for the kids because we don't have anyone to watch them. And it's not fair to the parent because he or she can't concentrate on testifying because they're worried about their children."
The parents say that they have no one with whom they can leave their children and that they cannot afford baby sitters.
Plans for Volunteer Center
A new state law requires that courthouses constructed or renovated after 1987 include child care centers. But government money for day care centers in existing courthouses is not available, state and county officials say.
Miller says child care centers are needed now. She has called a meeting Wednesday to find out whether individuals or groups are interested in helping set up an independent day care center at North courthouse that would be staffed by volunteers. (The meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Volunteer Center, 2050 Youth Way, Fullerton. More information is available by calling Miller at (714) 773-4555.)
Visiting children also are disrupting proceedings at the West and Central courthouses, which include Municipal and Superior courts, as well as at the South and Harbor courthouses, which house only Municipal Courts, officials said.
"I routinely send kids out of the courtroom because I can't hear," said Municipal Judge Pamela Isles, who conducts trials at South courthouse in Laguna Niguel. "But even then you can hear them screaming out in the hallway."
At Miller's suggestion, the county plans to study the feasibility of setting up similar child care centers at all five courthouses, said Louise Napoli, a financial analyst in the Orange County administrator's office.
The lack of child care can have broader economic implications. Miller recalled that two weeks ago, a man stood before her in court explaining why his family should not be evicted from their apartment, although they were behind in their rent. His wife stood beside him, cradling their wailing infant in her arms. The din drowned out the man's words.
"I couldn't ask the wife to leave because she was a defendant, too," Miller said in an interview in her chambers.
The baby's crying forced Miller to put off a trial for another day. The delay was expensive for the landlord, who had to pay his attorney, and taxpayers had to foot the bill for the continuance.
Nor is the problem confined to Orange County. Unsupervised children are troublesome in courthouses in the rest of the state, where day care centers are rare, said Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the California Judicial Council.
In fact, the problem is growing as the number of trials in the state mushrooms and affordable child care becomes scarcer, Holton said in a telephone interview from San Francisco.
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