A DEVELOPMENT DEAL to build a
new $200 million building for Family Court at 15th and Arch streets was cancelled last week by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald J. Castille because he had learned - from a story in the Inquirer, he says - that a lawyer who had been representing the state had become a co-developer of the project. By then, the state had paid $11 million in fees.
An investigation is under way. The state has taken over and will put the project out to bid in an attempt to neutralize the conflict of interest. In the meantime, the neighbors of the proposed project at 15th and Arch are furious at being left out of the planning and critical of the building's ho-hum design.
This is not a pretty story - or a pretty building, for that matter.
But to be blunt, Family Court doesn't need a pretty building, just a functional one that is affordable - and that's what the current design offers. It should not be delayed significantly.
For years now, the overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the court's two buildings - the juvenile- justice center at 1801 Vine St. and especially the domestic relations division at 34 S. 11th St. - have seriously impeded justice for 2,500 Philadelphia family members and legal staff who visit the court each day for cases of juvenile justice, divorce and custody, child neglect and domestic abuse. About 80 percent of the people who use Family Court don't have lawyers to help them navigate the system.
The planned building would eliminate or greatly reduce problems that have existed for many years:
* By consolidating the operations at one address, the building will eliminate substantial overlap that now exists - families that have cases in different divisions won't have to shuttle between different buildings.
* The Center City location will be relatively easy
for families to get to - unlike other proposed locations, such as 4601 Market St. or Broad Street and Ridge Avenue. It will be only a few steps from the city's Department of Human Services, as well as from the Law Department, making it easier for employees to attend hearings.
* The new courtrooms will allow relatives and
friends to accompany people appearing in court, and also will allow in outside observers, in keeping with the provisions of Constitution. Overcrowding and safety concerns at the South 11th Street location had prevented both.
* A children's playroom with space for about 50
small kids will make the situation more tolerable for children waiting to testify and will provide respite for parents who have to be at the court but can't find child care.
* The first-floor design will eliminate the long
lines of women waiting to apply for protection-from-abuse orders, lines that often snake outside of 34 S. 11th (and into the rain or snow).
No doubt it would be better if the building were larger, but that would have cost tens of millions of dollars more - money that just isn't available. No question the taxpayers deserve a full accounting of the money already spent on the project, as well as a report on any ethical breaches - or worse.
But the top priority should be finding a way to move ahead. Justice for these families has been delayed - and denied - for too long.