Harris County voters yesterday approved a $70 million dollar bond to construct a new family law center for Harris County, Texas. The facility will be located in the downtown Houston court complex.
The bond issue passed by a very narrow margin. 50.6% for and 49.4% against.
According to Family District Judge Bonnie Hellums, the building might be open in January 2011.
The new building will be built on the block north of the present one. It will require razing the "Coffee Pot" building which Harris County vacated, and also the teardown of the Lomas & Nettleston parking garage.
The building will be a "one stop shop" for most all family law services. Currently many of the services are spread across downtown. The building will house Family Law Intake, Children's Protective Services, the Domestic Relations Office, the Attorney General, and the Houston Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyer Program.
There will be rooms for children to give videotaped testimony via closed circuited television.
With one floor left as a shell, the building should be adequate for the county's family law needs for 15-20 years, Judge Hellums said. She noted the huge caseload carried by the Harris County Family District Courts and predicted it will only increase.
The volatile nature of many family law cases is reflected in safety plans for the new building. Today, to pursue a complaint, Houston area domestic violence victims must go to several agencies in different offices, often by bus, Judge Hellums said. The new building will have offices for assistant district attorneys, law enforcement officers, doctors and the Houston Area Women's Center.
When protective orders are being argued and negotiated, there will be separate rooms for the litigants, which should reduce tensions. There will be rooms for supervised visitation and monitoring exchanges between custodial and non-custodial parents. Judges will have secure parking in a level below the building reported Judge Hellums.
The New Harris County Family Law Center will also have a drug lab. Litigants suspected of abusing drugs-an issue in many cases- are currently sent to a lab three blocks away. To avoid the drug test, some litigants claim to get lost and arrive shaved (to avoid giving hair follicle samples). This possibility will be eliminated.
Judge Hellums is particularly interested in ensuring there is a designated Family Drug Court, which she currently presides over.
For more information about the new Harris County Family Law Center, go to http://www.hcfamiliesfirst.org/
Sources: Houston Chronicle; Hearsay (Harris County District Clerk Publication).