The new Miami-Dade Children's Courthouse
The new Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse (J. Albert Diaz)

It’s a weekday afternoon in Miami-Dade’s dilapidated juvenile courthouse.

The building nestled between the juvenile detention center and JB Tires resembles more of an abandoned high school than one where a young drug-addicted mother promises a judge she will make it through treatment this time.

The rooms are courtrooms in name only. Judges sit sightly above agency representatives, defendants, family members and court personnel squeezed around conference tables.

Outside the courtroom is a dingy waiting area where lawyers confer with clients and relatives amid throngs waiting for their cases to be called. Babies howl, and unsupervised children run free.

“It’s woefully inadequate, and it has been for many, many years,” said Chief Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto.

Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, a national leader in juvenile law and a longtime Miami-Dade veteran, added, “It’s about how we treat children and impoverished families in the community, and when you walk into this building you get the feeling that we don’t real care. And it’s been that way for a long time.”

This depressing scene will be gone next year. Crews are working on the landscaping for the new colorful Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse.

The $140 million building at 155 NW Third St. north of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center will be dedicated Feb. 6 in honor of two judges renowned for juvenile justice in South Florida: William E. Gladstone and Seymore Gelber.

The new courthouse won’t be operational until 2015. It finally will put under one roof family, delinquency, abuse and neglect cases, many of which affect juveniles.

“We have been moving toward a unified family court, but we don’t have the space to do it,” said Circuit Judge Orlando Prescott, administrative judge in the juvenile division.

Under one roof

The 14-story, 375,000-square-foot building will consolidate 17 agencies dealing with troubled children under one roof. The courthouse includes 16 courtrooms on four floors and administrative and support space. The state attorney’s and public defender’s offices will be in place along with the guardian ad litem program.

The existing courthouse at 3300 NW 27th Ave. makes it very difficult to coordinate cases, which might start with a domestic abuse complaint and dovetail into a delinquency or a drug court matter.

At the new facility, Soto said, “All the stakeholders will be able to be in that building. It will be a one-stop shop.”

The facility designed by HOK LLC already has won awards for its architecture.

“We are going to have the most beautiful courthouse in the county,” Lederman gushed.

She noted the public art in the new building will be spectacular, including a statue by noted sculptor Tom Otterness.

The art in the current courthouse is not exactly museum quality, though the judges have tried to spruce up the place. Original oil paintings adorn Judge Richard Hersch’s courtroom.

In their small quarters, the judges put the emphasis on the word labor in the phrase hovering above their benches: “We who labor here seek only truth.” It’s not unusual for juvenile court judges to serve simultaneously as social worker, addiction counselor and even psychiatrist.

Judge Jeri B. Cohen was talking Thursday about the various drugs that curb opiate addiction as she decided the fate of a young mother named Stephanie. She landed in court because as a drug addict she was putting her newborn in danger. Suffering from mental illness and with a history of addiction in her family, Stephanie got off heroin but relapsed on benzodiazapine, an anti-anxiety drug.

Cohen talked bluntly but without malice. “You should think seriously about giving this baby up,” the judge told the young woman.

She told her father to let her land on the street if his daughter uses again, but Cohen knows drug addiction is not just a matter of will power. “Her problems go way beyond drugs,” the judge said.

‘An afterthought’

Miami attorney Dan Gelber of Gelber Schachter & Green, a former state senator and prosecutor, said his father, Judge Seymour Gelber, helped pave the way for this type of judicial approach.

“For decades, juvenile justice has been an afterthought. It has almost been a footnote in the American justice system,” he said.

His father always declined in the past to have buildings dedicated to him. He relented when it came to the Children’s Courthouse.

“He was really touched. He was really such a part of the growth of the family court,” Dan Gelber said

When Gladstone took the bench in 1973, he said children were treated like chattel and the new courthouse is an example of how important they are in the judicial system today.

He said juvenile court is not about putting criminals behind bars. It’s about keeping a child from evolving into a criminal or falling through the cracks.

Gladstone credits Lederman and other judges with being instrumental in fighting for the new courthouse over the last decade, saying it would be just as apt that her name be on the new courthouse.

“She was the one largely instrumental for it,” Gladstone said.