For about 500 children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, Stanislaus County Superior Court can be a scary place where strangers make life-changing decisions.
Officials who hope to ease the strain recently turned some office space into a children's waiting room, so youngsters don't have to mingle with criminals or experience emotional encounters with abusive parents as they wait for their cases to be called.
Thanks to the Modesto Kiwanis Club, the waiting room has a comfortable couch and television, toys and storybooks, and a table so youngsters can color while older students do homework. As they toured the waiting room Wednesday, club members who picked up the $1,500 tab said they were glad to lend a hand.
"People always want money," said retired social worker Jerry Jackman. "We wanted something that would engage us, to do some physical work ourselves."
Few of California's courthouses have such waiting rooms, according to a recent report about foster care by the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state's judiciary. In Modesto, officials said they could not have created a cozy environment for children without community support.
"They now have a safe place to wait," said Commissioner Nancy Williamson, who oversees juvenile dependency hearings for the court. "They have a fun place to wait. And they have a friendly place to wait."
The commissioner explained her busy docket to club members during a brown-bag luncheon in her courtroom.
Children often blame themselves when they are removed from their home, even though the fault usually lies with a parent's drug or alcohol use, she said.
It's important that children attend hearings with their social worker or trained volunteers who advocate on their behalf so they understand the judge's rulings about placement, education and medical care.
The court's goal is to reunite families, so judges and social workers often send parents to counseling to overcome addictions to alcohol or drugs, deal with mental health problems and learn better parenting skills.
If parents cannot provide a stable home for young children, officials consider adoption. If older children are involved, officials look for other family members who could provide stable homes as legal guardians.
As a last resort, children are placed with foster parents or in group homes.
Studies show that youngsters who bounce from home to home are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs or get in trouble with the law, so Williamson reminds everyone that finding a permanent home for each child is the goal.
A "permanency quilt" hangs on the wall of her courtroom. She and her staff add a child's name each time a family is reunited or an adoption is complete.
"We want to get these children home," Williamson said. "And we want to get them home safely."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.