Juvenile and Family Courts

Juvenile court services present some special concerns that must be addressed in the design of court facilities. Jurisdiction varies considerably from state to state, and a court's specific jurisdiction will determine the court facility's design. In some states the juvenile and family courts are separate courts, while in other states they are a division of the general trial court. Juvenile and family courts may cover delinquency, abuse and neglect, divorce, child custody and support, domestic violence, adoption, guardianship, and/or probation - including intake, custody and supervision. Where they exist as a separate court they are more likely to have their own facilities, although this is not always the case. They may share the courthouse with other courts (criminal, probate, etc.).

Because juvenile and family facilities must accommodate a broad range of matters, they must be secure, safe, and dignified, while addressing the needs of children and families who are often in emotional distress. Those charged with designing juvenile court facilities must be sensitive to the needs of a young child who is the subject of abuse/neglect, as well as an older juvenile charged with serious offenses. In large jurisdictions it may be possible to design separate facilities to address these separate needs, but in most of our nation's communities, this is not feasible and a single facility must handle all manner of juvenile and family matters.

Juvenile and family courts are evolving. They once emphasized child welfare, but many states now treat more juveniles as adults. Traditionally, most juvenile hearings were held in private, while today in many states most are considered to be public hearings. These trends in juvenile and family matters require greater flexibility in the design and use of courtrooms, and the layout of the courtroom sets. Juvenile and family courts may be able to make use of existing criminal courtrooms, and other matters including adult criminal cases may be handled in courtrooms originally designed to hold juvenile proceedings. This makes courthouses more flexible in being able to adapt to future trends and changes in court caseloads.

Critical Planning Concerns

There are two critical planning concern related to juvenile and family courts:

  • Clear and distinct separation of juvenile offenders from adult offenders.
  • Protection of juvenile matters from public disclosure.

Separation of Adults and Juveniles

While juveniles and adults may be housed within the same central holding facility or area, the principle of distinct separation requires that their cells be isolated so that there is sight and sound separation between adult and juvenile offenders. Juveniles and adults should not be encounter each other when being escorted through corridors. This will require that juvenile cells be physically separated from adult cells within the holding area, perhaps on a separate corridor or behind a sound-proofed door. While adults and juveniles may be brought into the facility through the samesally port and entry it will require that they enter separately. This can usually be achieved operationally.

Protection of Juvenile Information

The projection of juvenile matters from public disclosure requires that any paper files be kept in secure and locked file cabinets or secure file rooms that are not available to the public. Additional precautions need to be made with any information display publicly such as on posted calendar sheets or electronic information screens in the corridors or outside the courtrooms.

Unique Requirements

Probation: The intake function is the most important for the design of juvenile facilities, because it is through the intake process that the decision is made whether to detain the juvenile in secure detention or release the juvenile. It is similar in function to pretrial in adult criminal courts where the court decides whether to detain the individual in jail pending trial or release the individual.

Detention: The juvenile detention facility is often located adjacent to the court, but may be many miles away, requiring juveniles to be transported to and from the detention facility. Close adjacency is important as it permits easier movement of juvenile detainees to and from court. If located away from the court, however, the facility will require temporary holding facilities to handle in-custody juveniles while in the courthouse. It should also be remembered that in-custody adults are often tried in juvenile court and appear as witnesses so even though this is a juvenile court, separate adult holding facilities are also required. This is true even where the juvenile detention is immediately attached to the courthouse.

Courtroom Size and Arrangement: Typically, juvenile courts would have small courtrooms that would accommodate the immediate participants in the hearing (juvenile, attorney, prosecutor, social workers, probation or juvenile service officer, judges, bailiff, school liaison, guardian ad litem, etc.) and large public waiting areas where families would wait for their case to be called. In many juvenile courts this is still the preferred arrangement, but with open juvenile hearings, courtrooms can be designed to be more like general trial courts in size and arrangement. Instead of waiting in the halls or public waiting rooms, parties can be brought into the courtroom to await their hearing. Here bailiffs can better maintain control and people are less likely to wander off and fail to appear. This arrangement requires the addition of a small hearing room for those cases that can and need to be private. It is easier for the judge and the parties to go into a separate room than for everyone else to be removed from the courtroom.

For more information about Juvenile courts, see the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

As with other types of courts, public access is important. The courthouse should be near public transportation and should provide adequate parking. Cases involving families and children bring more people to the courthouse than adult cases. Family cases will draw family members, and when children are involved there are often additional persons to look after the children. Adequate parking space should be provided for all persons visiting the court, including police and probation officers, social workers, etc. With small children, it is important that the approach to the building be close to on-site parking and be easily approachable.

Access also requires easily identified and understandable directional and information signs at the entrance and throughout the building. Locate signage where anyone, including a child, could easily find and read it.

The juvenile service intake unit should be adjacent to the juvenile court and should have a distinct and separate entrance to the courthouse, if the juvenile court is located in a courthouse with other courts. If the intake unit is located outside the court building, it should be near the court and other juvenile-related services. The public entrance and reception/waiting area should be easy to find and large enough to accommodate a number of persons, including juvenile referrals not in custody, parents, and law enforcement officers.

Family and juvenile cases often have more people associated with them than the typical civil or adult criminal case, and as a result, require a proportionately larger area for people to wait and circulate. The single greatest deficiency of many older juvenile and family courts is often crowded hallways and waiting areas.

A building's entrance and lobby makes the first statement about its mission and purpose. It should orient the user to the different functions and operations performed by the court, and serve as the focal point for the building. A reception area should be located in the lobby with appropriate signs and information to direct users to their destination. Information on court cases should be prominently displayed. It is also an area for security screening of all persons entering the building. High volume functions including the clerk of court, juvenile intake, child support/URESA collections, fine payment window, and probation should be located at or near the main public lobby.

Plan for and include an automated teller machine in the lobby or other central public place. The lobby may also include information kiosks or public access terminals for researching information on court cases. The lobby is also an excellent location for art or statuary appropriate to family and juvenile activities.

Probation and Intake Juvenile and family courts are more likely to administer probation services than any other ancillary function, and probation services (juvenile services) often need to be designed into the court facility or adjacent area. In juvenile and family courts the probation function may include intake, investigation, supervision, diversion, restitution, and placement services. In family courts, the probation office may also undertake family conciliation services, child custody investigations, and child support enforcement. Probation services are often best located near an outside entrance where the rest of the building can be closed off after hours.

The design and image of a juvenile court services agency should be similar to a general office setting. No one image is suitable for all juvenile and family courts. Many jurisdictions make greater use of brighter colors or artwork to enliven the court's surroundings and create a more friendly atmosphere. While artwork and colors are appropriate considerations, It may be more important to make sure that the facilities provide a safe and secure atmosphere by including sufficient waiting space to permit the separation of opposing parties and to be able to segregate witnesses so that they are not subject to intimidation.

Where juvenile and family courts are becoming more open and where juveniles are being treated more like adults, courts will share many of the same design features as do regular criminal courts. Further, facilities should project a dignified appearance appropriate to a court of law, while be comfortable enough to reduce stress and allay fears of the parties involved. The relationship between juvenile and adult services must be carefully studied to maintain the proper separation of adults and juveniles.

All work and waiting areas should have access to natural lighting, which creates a more pleasant environment for both the parties appearing in court and the court staff. The atmosphere should be a quiet and relaxing because of the stressful nature of the issues involved in juvenile and family courts.

Furnishings should be comfortable, but made of durable, low-maintenance vandal-resistant materials.With the presence of small children and mothers with infants, extra care should be taken to make the facility accessible to them. This may require sizing more furniture and accommodations for children.

The same handicapped accessible standards exist in juvenile and family courts as for courthouses in general.

Security is often more important in family courts than it is in criminal courts. Delinquency cases are not alone in needing security. Many dependency cases have special concerns also, such as the transportation of incarcerated parents to child custody hearings, maintaining order in highly emotional settings, and restraining parents who may strike out at court personnel. Additionally, adult criminal offenders are often brought to court to testify or may be the defendant in a child abuse case. Emotions are greater when dealing with issues of child custody and support.

All of the same security features needed in criminal courts are required in juvenile and family courts, including separate public, private, and prisoner circulation, weapons screening, and detention facilities. If the administrative branch is located with the court, then secure transport and detention of juveniles in custody should be provided. A secure entrance for juveniles in custody should be out of public view and through a secure corridor similar to that used for adult inmates. Providing secure passageways from court to detention areas and the separation of hostile family members, witnesses, and victims is of gravest importance.

Some court operations such as probation and child welfare may require after hours access to the building for education programs, supervision programs, and reporting. Where this is the case, every effort should be made to locate these services where after hours access can be gained without permitting visitors access to the rest of the courthouse.

Duress alarms should be located at the receptionist's station to signal the central security unit in case of trouble.

Spaces required are generally the same as in regular criminal trial courts, with some unique differences:

  • Less public seating in the gallery and more seating in the litigation area for social workers, guardians ad litem, child welfare workers, etc.
  • Plenty of space to separate different classes of witnesses, victims, and defendants.
  • A high level of security with separation of public, staff, and prisoner areas.
  • Flexible space and room for growth.
  • Adequate storage space.
  • Special waiting areas for small or abused children.
  • Childcare facilities.
  • Private interview space.
  • Rooms from which children may testify by remote video hook up.
  • Temporary work areas for counselors, evaluators, social workers, guardian ad litem, lawyers, police, probation officers, and others who must appear in court but may not have offices in the courthouse.

Facilities required for Juvenile Intake or Probation include:

  • Administrative offices
  • Waiting and reception areas
  • Interview and training rooms
  • Conference rooms
  • Defender and prosecutor offices
  • Toilet for use for drug testing
  • Interview rooms for intake - should accommodate eight to ten persons.
  • Probation interview rooms - should accommodate four persons.
  • Separate probation reception and waiting area remote from the general building circulation.
  • Intake separate from other probation services, located next to court reception.
  • Secure access from the detention facility to the intake area If detention is located adjacent to the court.
  • Secure entrance to intake for police.
  • Easy access to the family court's child care services from intake if centralized for all cases.

It should be assumed that every work station, or office, will require a computer workstation with video display monitor(s), a printer, and document scanner. Many workstations will require dual monitors. Other devices that may need to be accommodated include telephone, phone chargers, battery chargers, and computer tablets. Each workstation will require a minimum of two quadriplex electrical outlets and one dedicated computer power receptacle, two data jacks and one phone jack (3 CAT6 lines). Specialized workstations may require additional electrical outlets. Because of the heat generated by electrical equipment, steps should be taken to ensure that equipment is cooled. Plans should include room for considerable growth in electrical demand.

A one-way mirror, or remote video testimony from a separate room, may be used to protect a child witness from intimidation.