Warm Welcome Makes a Difference to Countless Denver Families
by Ryan Jardine
or one mother, being able to take her children to the Denver Warm Welcome Court Child Care Center was a lifeline, and one that helped her finish her parole-mandated classes and education.
"The mom said to me, ‘If this place hadn’t been here, I would have never made it through everything that I had to do. Because at least I knew when the kids were coming here they were safe, no one was going to hurt them, and they were going to be okay,’" said center Program Director Anne Conklin.
This story has been repeated hundreds of times by parents who are called to Denver courts.
Going to court is an experience that can create tremendous apprehension, fear, and tension. Plaintiffs, defendants, and individuals on probation have to deal with the stress inherent in most courtroom experiences. The center provides child care for and education to children of parents and guardians who are required to report to the Denver County and district courts—one group that may internalize this anxiety and uncertainty at the highest level.
"We see parents who are going through divorce, we see parents who are applying for a protection order, and we see parents who are trying to get custody of their children. We also care for a lot of children while their parents fulfill their probation requirements, including probation classes," said Conklin, who has more than 30 years’ experience in early childhood education.
For the last 13 years, the educators and staff at the center have worked tirelessly to alleviate this stress for parents, caregivers, and the youngest in our communities. Through this process, they have touched countless lives.
The idea for the center began in 1994 out of a concern about children being brought to court proceedings that may not be appropriate for their age and understanding. The Denver Bar Association formed a committee to examine this issue and suggest possible solutions. At that time, other states, such as California and Massachusetts, had developed and established child care centers for those with business in the courts. Denver hoped to provide a similar service to members of the Denver community where young children could be sheltered from court proceedings in which their caregivers were participating.
"We had all seen children at the City and County Building, and we knew they could be disruptive and make it difficult for their parents to concentrate on the proceedings, but we really didn’t appreciate the seriousness of this issue until we started to investigate it," said Joe Dischinger, a co-chair of the original DBA committee spearheading the formation of the center. "We heard stories from other states of toddlers holding their father’s handcuffed hands while their mother testified against him in a domestic violence matter. It was heartbreaking."
Many judges in Denver would order the children to wait outside the courtroom, but often there was no one to take care of them, and there was still plenty of drama in the hallways, including occasional shouting and fights.
In 1999, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey set forth a policy that all new court buildings must have waiting areas that are family-friendly to ensure children are not unnecessarily exposed to court proceedings. After renovating the former Denver Visitors’ Center, donated by then-Mayor Wellington Webb and the city of Denver, the center opened for business in April 1999.
Randy Livingston, president of the center’s board of directors and a co-chair of the original committee, reflected on the importance of collaboration in the center’s formation.
"The Denver Bar Association was the source of an opportunity for the courts, the mayor’s office, the city council, and private donors to create a program that improves court function, citizen access, and child well-being," he said. "The opportunity flourished as a result of the daily work of the center’s staff in making the program succeed."
The center has two child care rooms, one for newborns to 18-month-olds and the other for 3- to 12-year-olds. Educational activities are very important at the center, and as part of the center’s experience, each child is given a book or a stuffed animal to take home.
Sometimes, the harsh realities for families who use the center are realized following an appearance in court, especially when a child is brought to the center by a parent who then reports to criminal court proceedings. Sometimes following the court proceeding, this parent is immediately taken into custody and put in jail. In those circumstances, a social worker will pick up the child from the center and facilitate this child’s placement in the foster system.
"There are days when you feel very sad," Conklin said. "When a parent is taken into custody and a social worker arrives at the center, it is pretty devastating to the child because the child is not expecting it. … Those are the situations that really tug at your heart strings."
Conklin and the rest of the center staff strive to provide a variety of services to assist the families who use the center. The center gives parents referrals to a variety of services within the community, including food banks, housing, social workers, mental health services, and child education programs.
Children have been brought to the center in the middle of winter without some of the basic clothing necessary for cold weather. To try to meet these urgent needs of these children and their parents, the center has a clothing bank on site, providing coats and warm clothes.
Parents also can get access to literature on paternity, divorce proceedings, custody, and protection orders.
"We try to provide as many services as we possibly can. The center makes the most impact on these families lives when they get a chance to get the support that they need going through a really tough period of time in their lives," Conklin said. "The children feel safe and secure; the parents don’t worry about them when they’re here. In all those ways, I believe we have a very positive impact on the families." D
Ryan T. Jardine is a public finance attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver.