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Immediately inside, you pass through an airport-style security checkpoint (that is, like wimpy airport security before 9-11). You walk through a metal detector and your carry-on items are x-rayed. Beyond security is an open-air courtyard-slash-smoking-area with more palm trees (at the base of which smokers drop their butts) and a display of pants. They are children's pants, acting like children's pants do standing, sitting and playing in a small garden only there aren't any children in them, just the pants, alone in space. I find the display very evocative and meaningful. Where are the children who live in those pants? The focus of this building is children. They come here as names in court filings, but most of them never appear here in the flesh. The pants look every bit as vulnerable as real children, and you want to take care of them or at least make sure they are happy. You can't do anything for these pants, however. You used to be able to reach out and touch them, but now they are surrounded by a heavy metal fence, evidently for their own protection, and you can hardly see them at all. This is the way it is with most needy children in the real world: You want to help them but adult-constructed barriers usually prevent you from doing so.
Beyond the courtyard, glass doors lead into an airy 3-story atrium, where there are more full-size palm trees, these ones living in air-conditioned comfort. This lobby feels very much like an airport concourse. On the walls on either side are lines of video monitors with arrival and departure information. On the monitors on the Departures side (the left) is an alphabetical list of divorce cases for today, including docket times and courtroom numbers. Names on this side are usually listed in twos, for example, "Johannsen, A." appearing just above "Johannsen, J." (It might be the last time these two will appear together.) On the Arrivals side is an alphabetical list of today's juvenile court cases and their times and gates. This is where youthful offenders are arraigned, tried and sentenced. Child abuse/neglect cases are not listed on the monitors, and you have to ask about them at the Information Desk on the right. The people behind the desk will tell you which courtroom to go to, but they are rarely helpful beyond this. (It is remarkable how little information is available at the Information Desk.)
To one side of the Information Desk, just inside the glass doors on your right, is a passage leading to a large departure lounge, almost identical to one found in an airport except for a lack of windows. It is filled with banks of semi-comfortable metal seating, with a lot of people seated or milling about. Instead of departure gates, there are five doors lining the walls for Courtrooms 14 through 18. People are waiting in this lounge to be called into one courtroom or another. Lurking near Courtrooms 16, 17 and 18 are youthful offenders and their parents. Actually, I should say "accused" youthful offenders, because juveniles are accorded most of the same rights here as adults in criminal court: the presumption of innocence, the right to face their accusers in a fair trial, the right to an attorney, and the right to call witnesses on their behalf. Only a jury trial is denied here, which is usually a good thing for the defendent, since a judge in juvenile court tends to be more forgiving than a jury would be.
Sitting on the other side of the lounge near Courtrooms 14 and 15 are adults in various states of personal disarray. These could be parents whose children have just been taken away by police or social workers, sometimes only a day or two before. There are always some interesting human specimens here, mostly druggies who have pulled themselves together following a binge but who still aren't totally there. Some stare into space. Others weep uncontrollably. Some of them curse and try to argue with the bailiff: What right does the county have to take their children?
There is usually a least one person here with a lot of facial piercings, which I unfairly associate with parenting ability, in inverse proportion. It is okay for women to pierce their ears and wear modest danglements from them, because they are women, and we have to allow for some benign insanity. I am resistant to men piercing their ears, but I am willing to accept it to prove how progressive I am. When persons of either sex start piercing their nostrils, eyebrows, cheeks and tongues, sometimes with big metallic appliances that are sure to set off the metal detectors at the entrance, I begin to have serious doubts about their ability to care for their children. When someone has had their tongue surgically split down the middle so that they literally have a "forked tongue," then I am uncomfortable about parental reunification in any form. Unfortunately, these unscientific biases are inadmissible in court. Usually, the only issue is drug or alcohol abuse and the physical abuse or neglect that results.
I call this lounge "The Tank," in part because of all the interesting fish swimming around in it. The Tank contains a broad mix of humanity. There are defendants here, but also witnesses and victims in the same lounge. You can see where one group of people is trying hard to stay away from -- and avoid eye contact with -- another group. One woman, sitting alone, makes eye contact with no one. She is staring at a point on the wall about six feet to my left. One side of her face is strangely contorted, while the other side is expressionless, and neither side changes during the time I am watching her. I suspect that she won't be getting her kids back today.
Paranoia is thick in this room. At one point, I am writing a few words in my notebook, copying down the names of the judges beside the courtroom doors, when a woman about 10 feet away asks me to stop taking notes on what she is saying. I oblige her by putting away my notebook, but of course I am now intensely interested in her. Her face is multiply pierced, and her mood seems to flit back and forth between tears and anger as she talks to a less pierced companion. Knowing that she thinks I am monitoring her (which is now true), I feel it necessary to keep my distance, and I can only see her expressions and body language, without hearing her words. This woman is the opposite of the catatonic one. She is obviously full of feeling, but her feelings appear to change every minute. Tears, anger, laughter and frustration all pass across her face in rapid succession. I don't know how to explain it, but it seems like every emotional expression is being instantly negated, as though every appearance of "happy" had to be immediately followed by "sad." Even from a distance, I can see that her conversation is one-sided and consists only of the venting of her chaotic and self-contradictory feelings, with no real information conveyed or received.
Also milling about in the Tank, sometimes engaged in intense negotiations, are various professional-looking entities who obviously spend a lot of time here. These are divided between the Taggers and the Suits. The Taggers wear a photo ID on a lanyard around their neck, so you never have any doubt who they are or what their role is (provided you can get close enough to them to read the tag). These are county employees who could be performing a variety of roles: caseworkers, court staff, deputy district attorneys, public defenders, parole officers, janatorial staff. Some Taggers have a little circular device interposed between their photo ID and the lanyard. This is a spring-loaded thingy, like a small tape measure, that allows them to extend their card away from their chest and swipe it through the card-reader door locks located throughout the building. Thereby, they don't have to take the lanyard off their neck every time they swipe their card. Clever, eh?
The attire of the Taggers runs through a spectrum from quasi-casual to semi-formal, like you might find in any professional office building. Even if you can't read their tag, you may be able to guess a person's role from the way they are dressed: Those who appear regularly in court tend toward the formal while those who interact only with the public are less so, but even the more formal Taggers don't wear Armani, usually due to budgetary constraints.
The attire of the Suits is usually a couple notches more formal that the Taggers and could involve Armani, in part because the Suits have a bigger wardrobe budget and a greater need to convey a good impression. These are private lawyers, hired to defend the always-distressed clients in the Tank. They may be familiar with this place, but they don't have a tag, so they have to pass through security like everyone else. Most Suits have certain things in common: Nearly all of them have a Palm Pilot or similar device in their pocket into which they enter court dates. All are pressed for time and don't hang around the courthouse for longer than necessary. Beyond this, however, there are different kinds of Suits. Some of them are contracted by the county as supplemental public defenders while others are high-priced lawyers defending children of the rich. In terms of personality, I divide them all, without bias, into two scientific categories: human lawyers and Cave Man Lawyers.¹ It is easy to spot the Cave Man Lawyers because they walk on their knuckles.
Don't get me started on the Cave Men (and Cave Women). They are by no means limited to the legal profession and could be filling any role here in the Family Services Center -- at a ratio about the same as the general population. The ratio is much higher among the clientel of this facility, since nearly every contested case in divorce and abuse/neglect involves at least one Cave Person.
I know that "Cave Man" is a sexist and intolerant term. I don't mean to discriminate against men who live in caves, but you have to realize that some people are different than you and I. Everyone may be created equal, but sometime later there is a divergence. Some people learn to control there emotions, while others do not, and the latter tend to monopolize a disproportionate amount of court resources. Cave Men (or Barneys as I will later describe them) may look and talk like us, but there is something fundamentally different about them. Specifically, Cave Men are unable to empathize with others. That is, they cannot put themselves in another person's shoes, understand what they are feeling and accurately predict how they will react. This leads them to a world of trouble and often brings them into conflict with others and the law.
I love doing this: making snap judgments about people based on limited evidence. The Tank provides many opportunities for my craft....
For now, I am trying to understand how the court system works. I do this by dipping into courtrooms at random to see what is happening. Here in the Tank, I will start with Courtroom 18...
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