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Summit County Courthouse has a safe space for kids during domestic relations court hearings

Summit DR Court Children's Drop-In Center
Posted at 4:05 PM, Aug 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-12 18:11:47-04

AKRON — There are some things no child should have to hear. But when parents are forced to bring their children into a domestic relations courtroom, they can be left traumatized. One woman, who asked only to be identified as Joann, knows this first-hand.

“We heard everything,” she told News 5. “We couldn’t see it, but we could hear it.”

Joann’s parents divorced 50 years ago, but her memories of that time remain raw. She and her younger brother would sit on a bench right outside the courtroom. They heard everything. They heard that their father didn’t want to see them. They heard their father deny their baby sister as his own. They heard their baby sister endure a blood test.

“She was just a few weeks old, and we could hear her screaming,” Joanne said. All the while, she played the role of the protective big sister. “My little brother was sitting next to me crying and I would hang on to him.”

For decades the trauma of those moments on the courtroom bench was buried.

Until now.

“I didn’t realize that it bothered me as much as it did until I made the phone call to donate,” Joann said. That donation went to a new service inside the Summit County Courthouse. It’s designed to make sure no child has to endure, what Joann endured.

Summit DR Court Children's Drop-In Center
New Drop-In Center for children opening September 1 inside the Summit County Courthouse

“We want them to be able to overcome the barriers that they have,” said Summit County Domestic Relations Administrative Judge Katarina Cook. She worked with the Victim Assistance Program to make sure there was a dedicated space where parents can drop off their children before they head into their court hearings.

The program’s Director of Services Becky Cool said most people think about the big picture when a person is fleeing a domestic violence situation. We know that survivor needs housing, transportation and unemployment.

“And it’s really easy to forget about the children who beared witness to all of that in their home,” she said. “What this is about is increasing access, right? Not just access to safety but access to hope.”

The Children’s Drop-In Center is on the third floor of the courthouse. The same floor as the domestic violence courtroom and the Victim Assistance Program’s survivor intake center.

“You have a place that your children are going to be safe and they’re going to be watched and cared for while you are doing what you have to do at court,” said Judge Cook.

Summit DR Court Children's Drop-In Center
Drop-In Center will be staffed with trauma-informed specialists to keep kids engaged during parent's court hearings.

The center will always be staffed with one specialist from the Victim Assistance Program.

“To bring your children, to know they’re going to be met by advocates, by children-who-witness-violence specialists, who are trauma-informed, culturally humble, they know how to provide age-appropriate activities with children and really provide that safe space and that comfort,” said Cool. Staff will be supplemented with student interns seeking degrees in child and family studies, social work, or related fields.

At the end of the day, these women hope this new option for parents can help bring an end to generational trauma. And it’s that mission that got Joann to pick up the phone.

“It’s absolutely huge knowing that there are people now that care about what children have to go through,” she said. “Not another child will have to go through what I went through because of what these great people are doing.”

If you’re interested in donating, the Victim Assistance Program has a wish list here.

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