Styles McMillan, 4, plays in the Ulster County Family Court daycare center. (Photo by Carrie Jones Ross)

There is no court filled with bitterness, contempt and consternation more than a family court. Unwitting children are often hostage to the intense dramas in stressed-out families that often explode under pressure.

Kids often listen to their mothers recount details of domestic violence experiences. Others are forced to withstand countless accusations and allegations. Some kids are too young to know what’s going on but are forced to sit still for hours. Other kids act out, and run amok the courtroom, distracting their parents, lawyers, the judge, officers and anyone else there.

For these reasons, in 1989 then-Ulster County Family Court judge Karen Peters helped form one of the first family court daycare centers inNew York state. “Often the people didn’t have child care available in the situations of orders of protection,” said Peters, now hearing cases as a state Supreme Court justice. “To some extent it was dangerous, because you would see a child running around and they could fall into the corner. It was difficult if the mother was testifying and she had to focus on the child, not on her testimony.” The center allowed kids to be away from the tension in court, making everybody’s lives a bit easier.

But last April, the state slashed funding in half for all of the court system’s child care centers’ budgets as part of a $170 million cut to the whole judicial system. The Ulster daycare, located at the court facility on Lucas Avenue in Uptown Kingston, had an annual budget of $68,000, and has since been scaled down to $38,000. The center’s hours have subsequently been reduced from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday down to 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., with slightly longer hours on Mondays.

Peters feels that the center’s loss is everyone’s loss. “A childcare center such as this one which serves the parents and relatives in litigation, isn’t just meeting the needs of kids, but rather the entire community because a healthy safe child becomes a healthy safe member of the community,” said Peters. “You never know when you’re going to find yourself in family court. It serves everyone.”

Collateral damage

Rob Conlon, statewide program manager for family courthouse children centers, said that prior to the budget cuts the statewide children centers saw 58,000 kids per year. With the cuts, that number is to drop by as many as 30,000. “Children were all over the hallways and in the court rooms — hundreds of children a day,” recalled Conlon. “The creators understood that that was impeding the process. Five screaming children in a courtroom do not help a court case go well. You have court officers and judges coddling children and helping them calm down.”

Ulster Family Court Chief Clerk Kathy Lasko, a member of the daycare center’s advisory board, explained that when the daycare there opened in 1989, it was staffed by foster grandparents who received a small stipend for their services. By December 1998, the center was “officially” opened by then-Court of Appeals chief judge Judith Kaye. The daycare weathered a setback in September 2011 when it was closed four weeks due to flooding, losing toys, food and even backpacks from the recent backpack drive.