Infants and Toddlers in foster care are the most vulnerable members of our community. The trauma they have suffered at the hands of another impacts their ability to trust, form healthy relationships, grow, and develop. As they age they are at significantly higher risk for learning disabilities, chronic health impairments, mental illness, and behavioral issues. Time and time again we see families get caught up in a cycle of abuse and neglect resulting in multiple generations of one family being raised in foster care. In Baby Court we seek to disrupt this cycle and start families on a path of repair and reunification.
When a traditional court takes jurisdiction over a child with the goal of reunification, the family is ordered to participate in services that will eliminate or significantly reduce the risk to the child. This can include parenting classes, substance abuse counseling, random drug screens, mental health counseling, domestic violence counseling, anger management classes, obtaining appropriate housing and/or obtaining a legal source of income.
Each of these services generally comes with their own agency and assigned service provider, very few of which are specially trained to work with families with infants and toddlers. Parents are expected to engage in all these services, often at the same time, and demonstrate benefit from them. The court then reviews the case every 3 months to see if there needs to be a change in services or if significant progress has been made, until the children are returned or the goal changes to termination. This process often proves to be overwhelming for families and can lose sight of the unique needs of the infant/toddler.
The Baby Court model calls for a change in the way cases involving infants and toddlers are handled both on a systems level and in the direct services provided. Every Baby Court case has an Infant Mental Health therapist assigned to work directly with the infant/toddler, family and foster caregivers. The therapist provides individual parenting sessions to address the issues that brought their child into care as well as therapeutic support during visitation.
Baby Court cases go in front of the judge every month, instead of every 3 months, so that decisions and changes in the case can be made more quickly to address needs as they arise. Prior to the monthly court review hearing, a treatment team meeting is held with the parent, case worker, therapist and community providers. These meetings provide a supportive environment in which a comprehensive plan can be developed for the upcoming month. Needed actions and recommendations for change are identified that best meet the needs of the infant/toddler and support reunification for the family.
One of the major strengths of the Baby Court program has been the ability to provide a neutral space for meetings and visitation. A majority of the families in our program have a significant history of working with CPS and foster care, either with their own children or as a child themselves. Often, the location of visits in a crowded office setting serves as a reminder of previous traumatic situations that brought them there in the past (abuse/neglect, losing a child or losing a parent). Many parents and children have an immediate response of increased anxiety and decreased ability to think clearly and rationally after just entering the building.
Priority Children provides an alternative to these traditional settings. The calmer, more home like environment often helps to set aside anxiety and fears experienced by the children and parents we encounter. Having a place to visit that is neither the court, DHHS, nor foster care agency, can allow a more relaxed time together that in turn helps to improve the interaction between parent/infant and therefore promote a healthier attachment as well as work to restore trust between the families and the workers that are actively trying to help them.
Participants of Baby Court are also offered a specialized parenting class using the Nurturing Parenting Model. The program not only reinforces learning about good parenting but provides an opportunity for parents to support, and learn from, each other. The Nurturing Parent facilitator communicates regularly with the Infant Mental Health therapist as to what the class is working on and what skills to be looking for during visitation with the infant/toddler. The Nurturing Parent facilitator often provides activities or age appropriate toys for the parent to bring to visitation and obtains feedback from the Infant Mental Health therapist as to whether the parent is able to utilize the skills taught in class.
Twice a month, the parents who are enrolled in the Nurturing Parent Program attend a therapist run play group. In this group setting, parents are given the opportunity to practice skills taught in class in a supportive environment with other parents and children. Developmentally appropriate toys and activities are available to help facilitate meaningful and playful interactions.
Since Baby Court began in 2009, 80% of our infants have been reunified with a biological parent. That well exceeds the national average of 26%. The success of the Baby Court program is in a large part due to the ability for multiple agencies to come together under one unified forum with the same goal. Each system, the Department of Health and Human Services, Genesee County Family Court, Genesee Health System/Community Mental Health and other providers, functions completely on its own supporting families in their system however at different points these agencies interact and overlap.
In Baby Court, there is an intentional process for the overlap of these agencies and Priority Children provides both the neutral space and structure that allows them to function in unity for the Infants and Toddlers in our program. Priority Children does this by providing physical space for staff, community meetings, visitation space, and also by dedicating concrete resources and personnel resources to facilitate and orchestrate this process.
Erin Werth, Baby Court Coordinator