The Sussex County Family Court building on The Circle in Georgetown is bursting at the seams. Space is so limited that prison inmates move through public areas where children and their parents sometimes wait.
A proposed $80 million, 100,000-square-foot court building would more than triple the size of the existing court, opened in 1988.
During a Feb. 14 tour, Family Court Chief Judge Michael Newell and Judge Peter Jones pointed out cramped working spaces and courtrooms. Handicap accessibility is limited and there is no space to separate litigants for private discussions. The detention center is so small it does not comply with the law.
On the first floor in the lobby, just past the security check, people waiting for mediation are grouped together around tables. “This can be an emotional time. In modern courtrooms, there needs to be a separation of litigants,” Jones said.
Since the existing building opened, Family Court caseload has nearly doubled, and the types of cases Family Court handles have changed and increased.
But to Newell, a new building is much more than bricks and mortar. “There needs to be dignity in a courthouse for the litigants. Jurisdiction, times and population have changed,” Newell said.
“It's beautiful outside. It's a shame this location is not large enough to meet the needs of a new Family Court,” Jones said.
The new court will be built a block east of the existing building on several parcels at the intersection of Market and Race streets. All existing buildings on the property will be torn down. The existing court will revert to the state and likely be used for court and Department of Justice offices.
Security is addressed
Security is a major issue addressed in the new design. “An inmate in an orange or white suit in shackles escorted through a public lobby is not acceptable in 2020,” Newell said.
The existing courthouse has no separate entrance or elevator for use by the Department of Correction when when inmates are escorted in and out of the building.
The elevator and hallway used by staff and judges are also used by inmates, so staff has to view a monitoring screen and stay away from the elevator when an inmate is present. Those issues will be addressed in the new design.
The current holding cell area has three rooms, and not two rooms for male and female detainees and two rooms for male and female juvenile detainees, which federal law requires.
Newell said the law dictates that all detainees be out of sight and sound of one another. “Here, they are all together, and that just doesn't work,” he said. “There is no dignity, no security and no privacy.”
A 2006 Southern Court Facilities Space Study found Sussex Family Court was deficient in meeting modern safety and security standards.
More, larger courtrooms
The records storage area is in the same hallway used by judges, court staff and DOC staff, and has limited availability to the public. Both judges acknowledged that records should be easily accessible to the public.
The six courtrooms in Sussex Family Court, averaging 600 square feet, will be replaced with at least eight courtrooms averaging 1,400 to 1,800 square feet.
Jones said courts frequented by children need to be more child-friendly, with private areas for attorneys and families to meet before proceedings.
Newell said the court's 65 employees are working in cramped conditions with makeshift cubicles using every square inch of space, and support agencies leasing space are also cramped.
The new court would have rooms for the Attorney General's Office, Office of Defense Services, child advocates and other stakeholders, said Sean O'Sullivan, chief of community relations with the Office of the Courts.
Sussex and Kent projects
Newell said Kent County Family Court shares many of the same challenges, and the state has plans to build a new court in Dover. He said the Sussex County project will come first, and he hopes ground will be broken by 2021. Both projects are in the pre-design phase, he said.
He said all the real estate at the new site has been acquired.
O'Sullivan said there is $17.2 million in reserves and another $17.5 million in Gov. John Carney's proposed budget for the project, enough for design to proceed. He said it's estimated another $46 million in state funds will be needed to complete construction. “We'll have to go back next fiscal year for more funding. We have good support from the governor and in Leg Hall,” he said.
ABOUT FAMILY COURT
In fiscal year 2019, there were more than 11,000 filings, an increase of 91 percent over the past three decades.
Family Court presides over juvenile delinquency, child neglect, dependency, child abuse, adult misdemeanor crimes against juveniles, child and spouse support, paternity, custody and visitation of children, adoptions, terminations of parental rights, divorces and annulments, property divisions, enforcement of separation agreements, guardianship over minors, orders of protection from abuse, and intra-family misdemeanor crimes. Family Court also has misdemeanor jurisdiction over offenses committed between former spouses, persons cohabitating together as a couple and people living separate, with a child in common.
More than 80 percent of litigants represent themselves. “That's unfortunate because litigation is complicated. We wish everyone had an attorney, but most can't afford it,” Jones said, adding in some cases the court can appoint an attorney.