Kid-friendly room at Westmoreland courthouse designed to ease anxiety
Back when he was a caseworker for the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, Adam Garrity noticed how uncomfortable children looked whenever they came to the courthouse.
They weren't there for a school tour, but for an often stressful matter involving their parents or guardians — involving their future.
They awaited their uncertain fate in a room that, according to one observer, looked like a train station waiting room.
“I've been in this room over a hundred times. I saw the anxiety firsthand,” said Garrity, a Children's Bureau program specialist.
On Wednesday, Garrity's vision for a more kid-friendly area came to fruition with the dedication of the Kids Comfort Room on the fourth floor of the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
The room now has colorful wall murals, a carpeted play area and children's furniture. It is stocked with children's books, toys, stuffed animals, games and electronic tablets pre-loaded with children's games and videos.
The murals are “interactive” in that they are made with magnetic paint. Children can create scenes using animal appliqués with magnets on the back.
The room is designed to be a comfortable space for children awaiting family court appearances and decisions on matters such as child custody, protection from abuse, delinquency and probation, said Veronica Ent, vice president of Westmoreland Children First , the advisory board to the Children's Bureau.
“The gentle needs of children are sometimes overshadowed in the system when larger and more complicated issues are at hand,” Ent said. “During courthouse visits, children are often shuffled from waiting place to waiting place, surrounded by strangers, unsure of their future, and are nervous about what will happen. This room is part of an effort to help these children relax and feel safe and secure.”
Greensburg family law attorney Abby De Blassio said she's already noticed a difference in the children who spend time in the Kids Comfort Room.
“I could tell that the anxiety level had definitely lessened for not only the children but also the grownups in this system,” De Blassio said. “We have to look at this as lawyers, judges, Children's Bureau members and anybody else in the legal system — to see it through a child's eyes. How does this young person experience coming into this building and going through this process?”
Funding for the project came from a $4,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. Westmoreland Children First, the advisory board, organized the renovation with help from the Westmoreland County Community College Art Department and the Collaborative Law Association of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Lyndsay Winfield, a senior at Jeannette Senior High School, made stocking the room with toys and books her senior project. She collected 437 items, including 300 books, mostly from family members, but also from teachers and friends.
“It was a true honor to be a part of this project. It was an awesome experience,” said Winfield, whose mother, Stacey Winfield, is treasurer of Westmoreland Children First.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.