Children in Court: A Troubling Presence

By Hudson, Lucy; Williams, Patricia Hrusa | Child Welfare, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Children in Court: A Troubling Presence


Hudson, Lucy, Williams, Patricia Hrusa, Child Welfare


The rise in domestic and community violence and criminal activity has brought with it a noticeable increase in the number of children who are present in the nation's courthouses. This article details the reasons children come to court and the effect the experience has on their well-being. Drop-in child day care is discussed as a possible program model to support families and counteract the risks to children.

For almost all children, going to court is a frightening experience which occurs at a time of family crisis already fraught with anxiety. Courthouse corridors and even courtrooms are full of children: they accompany adults who need to be there and have no other place to leave their children, or they are there because they themselves need to appear in court.

Courts should provide friendly environments, including trained staff, for children who are waiting to testify in court cases, child victims who are attending hearings and other court proceedings, and children who have merely accompanied their parents to court because there was no one to look after them. Friendly environments and trained staff can provide a safe, nurturing alternative to the tension, conflict, and verbal violence that often characterize courtrooms.

Higginbotham et al. 1992

Drop-in child day care can offer a safe haven to children who increasingly find themselves in courthouses around the country, where the potential is great for exposure to disturbing and possibly dangerous situations. Judges, attorneys, and other court employees in several states have recognized the harm that children may suffer by virtue of their presence in court, and have organized efforts to provide court-based child day care settings for the children of litigants and for children who are themselves court-involved. This article documents the reasons children are appearing in court and why child welfare and related professions should take steps to limit children's exposure to this intimidating adult environment.

The presence of children in courthouses is escalating due to several factors. An increasing number of parents and other adult guardians are getting divorced and thus arguing about custody and child support. Parents are seeking restraining orders to protect themselves from abusive spouses. Substance abuse is wracking the integrity of the family, resulting in criminal charges and abusive or neglectful parenting. The court is deciding the fate of children in the custody of the state's child welfare system. Parents and children are victims of, or witnesses to, violent crime.

Many court-involved families lack the personal and financial resources to arrange for alternative care for their children while they are in court, leaving them with no choice but to bring their children with them to court. The presence of children in courts is cause for serious concern for two major reasons. First, children can disrupt the timely administration of justice by behaving as one might expect them to behave in such stressful circumstances: they cry, shout, run, taunt, laugh, argue, complain, and fidget, and they throw things. Second, the presence of children in courts may subject them to testimony and/or situations potentially disturbing or even damaging to them. They may hear their parents and other adult guardians accused of vicious crimes; they may hear a parent describe the torture inflicted by a vindictive spouse; they may hear sobs from victims of rape still distraught from their traumatizing experience. Adults find such situations anxiety-provoking at best; children can easily be traumatized.

While common sense firmly supports the notion that children are easily harmed by the adult events that unfold in courthouses, a review of the literature showed that this particular aspect of harm to children has received little attention. (The bulk of the research on children's presence in court focuses on the children as witnesses.) Most of the research illustrates the damage children experience when exposed to violence in their homes or communities; because there are parallels, this literature is briefly reviewed. …

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