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Reorganized Family Court Opens

Child's Tragedy Prompted Reform

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page DZ04

A new D.C. Family Court, three years in the making, was unveiled last week for some of the same leaders whose pointed criticism prompted the sweeping overhaul.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) joined officials from the courts, the District and the federal government last Wednesday for a formal dedication in the east plaza outside the main courthouse.

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Renovated and expanded over the last several months at a cost of more than $6 million, the Family Court wing is where many of D.C. Superior Court's family functions are now clustered, amid walls full of artwork by children from around the city.

It is part of an effort to make the courthouse a less forbidding place for the families that find themselves there for a child custody dispute, a criminal charge or a neglect accusation. Speaker after speaker applauded the efforts of the top Family Court judge, Lee F. Satterfield, and of his bosses, Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus G. King III and Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner.

"This is really exciting," said DeLay, who sponsored the Family Court Act, which laid the legislative groundwork for the reorganization of the court. "To walk through there and see a family-friendly court . . . is really breathtaking."

The consolidation of many court functions formerly scattered in assorted locations around the eight-level courthouse on Indiana Avenue NW follows the addition of several new Family Court judges and a host of other organizational changes intended to move cases more swiftly to resolution.

New couches, carpeting and lighting now line the corridor of the John Marshall Level of the courthouse, with an eye toward welcoming the people who make their way to family court.

"I think the redesign of the space is sort of soothing," said Dianne King, administrative director of the Family Court. Hopefully, she said, the environment will ease the stress of what are often "very trying" situations.

With a ceremonial ribbon-cutting and laudatory speeches, the grand opening was a festive, optimistic affair. It was a far cry from the tragedy and turmoil that set in motion the reform of the court almost five years ago.

Brianna Blackmond, 23 months old, was killed in January 2000 after a judge returned her to her family's troubled home. In death, Brianna became a symbol of the problems plaguing the city's child welfare system. She had been in foster care, but the judge returned her to the care of her mother without a full examination of the case. Brianna was killed two weeks later by her godmother, who lived with the family, after the little girl would not sit still while her hair was being braided.

Brianna's death ended the career of the judge, and her death, along with the deaths of dozens of other children, led Congress to demand the overhaul of the way the city deals with children at risk. Along with changes in the city's child welfare agency, lawmakers mandated major changes in the court system. Recent reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Council for Court Excellence indicate that the reforms have improved the way the courts handle abuse and neglect cases.

But pleased as the speakers were with the progress, the irony of celebrating -- and expanding -- a place that processes so much pain was remarked upon.

If all leaders do is applaud themselves for treating the symptoms of social ills, they are not doing enough, Norton said.

"I can no longer come to these affairs and say, 'Aren't we wonderful? We now have a place for children with no parents or children who've been abused or children who've been neglected,' " she said.

"Let us step back and say we need to find the place for young black men and young black women to get married, to have children, for family life in the District of Columbia to be revitalized, and for this place to be a way station, where every once in a while, as will always be the case, a few families and a few children have to make their way," Norton said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company