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Children’s Center opens at civil court in Jamaica

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Children accompanying their parents to Queens Civil Court in Jamaica might find the experience a little more fun now that they have a place to play while they wait.

The Children’s Center, a playroom stocked with toys, books, and a computer, and staffed with teachers, formally opened at the courthouse Tuesday. The center is a joint venture of the Unified Court System of New York and Safe Horizon, a non-profit victims’ advocacy group.

The center began watching children age 7 and younger when it opened in May 2000, but Tuesday was the official ribbon-cutting with top county, city and state court judges in attendance lauding the project.

The center’s goal is to make the court experience more welcoming, said Paula Calby, vice president of the criminal justice program for Safe Horizon.

“A day in court can be frightening to a child,” she said. “The experience can be intimidating from the moment the child enters the court and faces the metal detectors.”

The center has dolls, playsets, children’s books, games, and a computer with educational software to entertain the children, Calby said.

“The children are constructively engaged in a safe sanctuary while their parents are engaged in important court business,” said Sheryl Dicker, executive director of the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children.

In addition to providing a day care facility, the Children’s Center can also link families to social, educational, entitlement and victims’ services, Calby said.

Children are limited to age 7 because of space and supervision constraints, Calby said. Since May 2000, 1,700 children have played at the center.

“To know you can come to the court, bring your kids, and know they’re in a safe space gives security to a great deal of people,” said Jeremy Weinstein, supervising judge for Queens Civil Court.

There are 32 centers at courthouses across the state, said Judith Kaye, chief judge of the New York Court State of Appeals. In 2001 the centers welcomed 51,000 children.

“This is very tangible proof of what we can accomplish for the children of New York,” Kaye said.

At civil courts, the demand is even greater, since cases settled there are broader than those at criminal court, said Fern Fisher, administrative judge for New York City Civil Court.

“Civil court is where everyday people come to solve their everyday problems,” she said. “Everyday people have children.”

The center is a relief, said Felix Perez of Rockaway as he watched his two daughters, ages 2 and 9 months, play.

“I’ve got a lot of court things to do and it’s very easy to bring them here,” he said. “It’s very convenient and they have fun.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300 Ext. 138.

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