Former jail space converted into kids’ rooms at Faulkner County Courthouse

By Tammy Keith Published October 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Christina Langston, left, director of the 20th Judicial District Children’s Room Project, and Louise Furst, volunteer, stand in one of the rooms remodeled on the fourth floor of the Faulkner County Courthouse in Conway. The rooms are used for children and youth, ages 4 to 18, to have a place to stay while their parents or guardians are in court. Langston is a graduate of Hendrix College and was an intern prior to becoming the projdect’s director.

The little girl reluctantly got off the elevator on the fourth floor of the Faulkner County Courthouse in Conway and was shaking like a leaf, Christina Langston recalled.

Within minutes of being in the children’s room, the girl was working puzzles and doing cartwheels for Langston.

Langston, 22, of Conway is director of the 20th Judicial District Children’s Room Project.

Three rooms on the fourth floor of the courthouse, former jail space, have been converted into an area for children ages 4 to 18 to stay while their parents or guardians are in court.

“It’s a good, safe location for them,” Langston said.

The fourth floor is secure, she said, accessible only by using a password for the door, or a key for the elevator.

It was the idea of 20th Judicial District Judge H.G. Foster of Conway.

He wants to make it clear: “It’s not baby-sitting.”

Educational, age-appropriate toys have been donated — books, puzzles and more — and there are volunteers who interact with the children.

Foster said the room is a lifesaver for children who otherwise would have to sit in the courtroom and listen to testimony or wait out in the hallway with strangers.

He recalled one time when a child was waiting in a room near the courtroom.

“I had a bailiff come to me during court … and say, ‘She heard her mother call her a liar.’ I immediately stopped court and talked to the little girl and explained that she didn’t hear all the wonderful things her mother said about her, and that it was taken out of context, and I explained what that meant,” Foster said.

Langston said sometimes children are in the courthouse because of a custody hearing.

“Sometimes a kid goes home with a parent who did not bring them,” she said.

She said volunteers aren’t told why the child is in the courthouse.

The fourth-floor area is also used for transfer of custody, or as a meeting place between children and their noncustodial parents, Langston said.

Foster said he and other judges can go upstairs to the conference room, across the hall from the play area, and interview children.

He said volunteer Louise Furst of Conway was “instrumental” in making the room a reality.

She is a lifetime board member of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance of North Central Arkansas and has worked with Foster in the area of domestic-violence prevention.

“All this has been donated, and I think that’s cool,” Furst said, standing in front of a chalkboard in the playroom.

She said kids love to write on the chalkboard and bang the eraser against it, seeing the cloud of chalk dust released.

Langston said the mess doesn’t bother her. She said she sweeps the rooms every day and sanitizes toys often. Books are separated into groups appropriate for different ages, from preschool books to the Harry Potter series for older children, she pointed out. Brightly colored tubs of toys sat on the floor.

The children’s artwork — and some of Langston’s, she said — is displayed on two walls.

One of the rooms has a wall of windows that overlooks the parking lot. Children are attracted to the view, she said.

Furst recalled one toddler who was sad, and his lip was trembling, but he went to the window and noticed his uncle’s truck below, which had his car safety seat in it.

That seemed to calm him, she said.

Langston uses the outside view as a distraction, too. She said she’ll ask children how far they think a paper airplane would fly if they launched it from the fourth floor. (The windows don’t open, however.)

Langston said one 16-year-old, “kind of a tough guy,” had been upstairs for about five hours.

“I said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m about to get a coloring book,’” Langston said.

He said, “Wait — we can color up here?”

She said he happily made paper airplanes and decorated them.

Furst said Langston has done a “marvelous” job getting the room ready.

Langston said she graduated from Hendrix College in May and became an intern in the courthouse, just after the room opened. She became a paid employee this month.

Langston trains the volunteers for the project and has created a list of guidelines, which include how to give appropriate and positive affection, such as handshakes and high-fives, and procedures for taking children to the restroom.

Many of the volunteers for the room are Hendrix students or retired individuals, she said.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are fully staffed, Langston said, but on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, if someone cancels, it’s a problem.

She said that one day she came in at 8 a.m. and stayed until 8 p.m.

Furst said a bailiff will sometimes bring children to the room, and the volunteers wear badges identifying them as Children’s Room Project volunteers. Furst said they will sit in the back of the courtroom, and if a child needs to go upstairs, a volunteer escorts him.

The children’s parents or grandparents are welcome to stay in the Children’s Room Project with them, Furst said.

Often, though, the adults look around and, satisfied that the child is being well taken care of, go back downstairs.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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