Imagination in the Courtroom: An Innovative Approach to Designing a Friendly Environment

Half room view of the newly painted waiting room in Judge Villalon’s Child Protection Court, courtesy of Empowering Success for Foster Youth in South Texas

The way that adults, such as lawyers, judges, CASA workers, etc., engage with foster youth in a court setting is a huge indicator of whether or not an environment feels friendly. But sometimes when we are trying to convey a welcoming atmosphere, a picture really can be worth a thousand words.

An art project currently funded through the Texas Bar Foundation is designed to create such a youth and family friendly environment at court. As part of a grant entitled “Empowering Success for Foster Youth in South Texas,” the waiting room at Child Protection Court of the Rio Grande Valley West – typically a tense and crowded environment where families wait, sometimes for hours – is being transformed. A local artist named Eddie Martinez, along with the help of community members and students, is designing a mural to stimulate conversations around curiosity, creativity, and the possibility for post-secondary education.

Part of the waiting room mural, courtesy of the Empowering Success for Foster Youth in South Texas grant.

In the mural, there are a variety of scenes depicted relating to the exploration of the natural world. “We hope this will excite the youth about pursuing an education after high school,” Says Alyssa.Alyssa Hanshaw and Patricia Ramirez are two Research Assistants at the Office for Victim Advocacy & Violence Prevention (OVAVP) at UT Rio Grande Valley who have witnessed firsthand the transformative effects of the mural. “The initial hope for the mural was to spark a conversation,” Says Alyssa. “Families can spend hours in the waiting room and the anxiety builds up until their hearing. The mural adds more color, ideas, imagination, and it can be a distraction from what is happening in the courtroom.”

Muralist Eddie Martinez working on one wall for the Empowering Success for Foster Youth in South Texas grant initiative.

In addition to the mural, the surrounding space has been made over with additional amenities meant to create a sense of connection. “The mural is complemented by a book drive, bookmarks with resources [for youth], and YouTube videos featuring local foster care alumni and resources for college or other professional training,” Says Patricia. “The children are able to interact with their parents or CASA by reading a book together. Conversations are sparked among the youth by the different topics the mural brings into the room. They are mostly excited about all the fun stuff happening in such a small waiting area!”

Empowering Success for Foster Youth in South Texas
Another view of the mural in Judge Villalon’s Child Protection Court

Alyssa and Patricia are also supporting the Texas Youth Permanency Study at the courthouse in Edinburg by recruiting youth and administering the survey. In their experience, making the court more accessible and friendly for youth, creating a safe space and positive relationships also helps with engaging the youth in TYPS. “I believe the youth value the opportunity to attend court,” Says Alyssa. “With the special projects such as the mural, we strive to create a safe space that gives the children and youth the opportunity to be involved and create positive relationships. Initially they hesitated to participate in the survey but now that we have established a relationship, they are more open to ask questions and talk about school.”

To learn more about Judge Villalon’s Child Protection Court of the Rio Grande Valley West, click here.