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KD Sunday Spotlight: Safe Haven inside Allegheny County Family Courthouse

KD Sunday Spotlight: A safe haven inside the courtroom
KD Sunday Spotlight: A safe haven inside the courtroom 04:36

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Being in a courthouse can be stressful and scary for a child who has experienced trauma.

There are safe spaces in the Allegheny County Family Courthouse thanks to one organization and a group of dedicated judges.

"This is a place where they cannot just be safe but as you can be enriched and be able to kind of be a child while they're here," said Marissa Fogel, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh.

The Children's Rooms of the Courts, which opened in 1980, is a safe haven for kids. The National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh provides free, drop-in childcare for families or guardians that go to the family, criminal, and civil court divisions. 

NCJW advocates on behalf of women, children, and families.

Fogel said many of the children are in the courthouse because of unfortunate or traumatic situations.

"That could be a custody or potentially being experiencing witnessing or being the victim of violence so part of the benefit of these rooms is that this is a safe environment where all of our staff is trained in trauma-informed care," Fogel said.

"We try to make it as happy and as carefree as they can be while they're here," said Misi Bielich, director of the Children's Rooms in the Courts.

Bielich said they provide activities for children aged from birth to 13.

There are toys, games, some fish and turtles, lots of books, and iPads.

"We do that because kids really sometimes just need to come in and be lost in something, they need to forget what's going on around them, they're not here for a pleasant reason," Bielich said.

Kids get a book to keep, a snack bag filled with healthy foods, and lunch.

Bielich's favorite part is giving brand-new clothes to the kids and adults if they need some.

"Unfortunately, we can't necessarily focus on where the kids came from or where they're going because it's just heartbreaking, but we do focus on is that we are able to give them a little bit of time here where it's stress-free, they can do what they want," Bielich said.

The family courthouse also now has sensory-friendly and trauma-informed spaces. Judge Jennifer McCrady initiated the projects and other judges assisted. They received funds from foundations in the county and private donations.

"We changed our waiting room, we have areas for children that have neuro-diverse apps, we have fidget toys in all of the courtrooms, headphones, noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses," said Judge McCrady.

They also added a sensory room, an outdoor playground, and a medical clinic in partnership with UPMC Children's Hospital for illnesses, physicals, and other care for children.

"If you're waiting for a hearing for three or four hours, that there's something you can do entertain yourself, to just ease the tension so you're not just thinking about what's going to happen next," Judge McCrady said.

Judge McCrady said they recently added more behavioral health and crisis resources, and they plan to make more improvements in the courthouse.

"It just provides a calming space, it's really important, physical space matters," she said.

"This kind of bringing together of these services really provides more ease and support for families as they move through their lives," Fogel said.

For so many children and families all of these special spaces in the courthouse are ports in a storm.

"Just hoping that they have a warm feeling when they leave here and that this is always, no matter what goes on outside the doors of this room, in this building that this is always a safe and caring place for them," Bielich said.

The National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh has a popular re-sale shop called Thirftique on 51st Street in Lawrenceville

Children can fill up a bag with free clothes at the store on Saturdays.

To support the organization, you can go to the 53rd annual NCJW Designer Days VIP Event and Sale at the store. The VIP preview part is November 1st, and the public sale is November 2nd to November 6th.

Donations to NCJW can be made online

The nonprofit also has a program called MomsWork that helps women seeking financial wellbeing. There are online educational opportunities and a drop-in working mom support group on the third Thursday of every month

If you would like to see an organization highlighted in KDKA'S Sunday Spotlight segment, send Jessica Guay an email at 

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