The Arkansas Safe Babies Court Team is a pilot project under way in Judge Joyce Williams Warren’s 10th Division Circuit Court in Pulaski County, Arkansas. Arkansas ranks 47th among all states for child well-being, and 60 percent of Arkansas infants and toddlers live in low-income families. At any given time, approximately 4,000 children are in the custody of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS), including 500 children awaiting adoption. Pulaski County is the home of Little Rock, the state’s most populous city. Little Rock authorities report numerous drug arrests, mostly related to marijuana, methamphetamines, and crack cocaine. Searching for innovative ways to provide services to families in crisis and stem the tide of children entering the child welfare system, leaders within Arkansas DHS approached ZERO TO THREE to learn more about implementing a Safe Babies Court Team.
Pulaski County became a designated Court Team site in September 2009. Darneshia Bell was hired as the Community Coordinator in Little Rock in December 2009, and she and Judge Warren began working together to oversee the project in dependency/neglect court. Judge Warren and Ms. Bell immediately drafted a protocol for selecting families and established a relationship with DHS caseworkers, who agreed to provide specialized visitations and services to chosen families. To participate in the project, a family must have at least one child between the ages of birth and three who has been adjudicated dependent and/or neglected in Judge Warren’s court. Before the Court Team was implemented, Pulaski County offered few services specifically targeting infants and toddlers beyond a comprehensive medical, dental, and developmental evaluation (a joint project between DHS and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) that is provided to every child entering foster care in Arkansas. Court review hearings were few and far between, and meetings between the family, caseworkers, attorneys, and therapists to review progress and compliance with the case plan were infrequent and often adversarial. Parents of children in the foster care system often were granted minimal supervised family visitation, regardless of the child’s age or whether the parent had bonded with the child.
As Community Coordinator, Ms. Bell’s first task was to work with Judge Warren to establish a Court Team composed of attorneys, DHS caseworkers/supervisors, early childhood education providers, therapeutic service providers, and other community stakeholders invested in helping Pulaski County’s infants and toddlers in the child welfare system. Ms. Bell has worked to establish invaluable community collaborations. She used her contacts on the Court Team as a springboard to reach out and educate other workers and stakeholders on issues affecting this community such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), infant mental health, and the importance of attachment and bonding at early ages. With the backing of ZERO TO THREE, she brought in nationally recognized experts to hold trainings open to the public and sent clinicians from several local developmental daycare centers to New Orleans for extensive training in Child-Parent Psychotherapy. After laying the groundwork, the Court Team took its first case in July 2010. Since then, it has provided specialized services, monthly family team meetings, and full court review hearings every six weeks to families navigating the child welfare court system in Little Rock.
Ms. Bell and Kristi McGibbony, the Assistant Community Coordinator hired in June 2011, are using ZERO TO THREE’s national database to track the project’s families and promote the fact that these children are reaching permanency up to twice as fast as children receiving standard DHS case services. Not only do the children benefit from additional services and visitation, but the parents receive support and learn parenting skills that make them far less likely to reenter the revolving door of the child welfare system in Arkansas.
Arkansas and Little Rock (Pulaski County) Demographics
- 2010 Population of Pulaski County (includes Little Rock) was 382,748; this represents a 5.9 percent increase from 2000 Census.
- 13.7 percent of Pulaski County’s population is less than 10 years of age.
- 10.4 percent of Pulaski County families live below the poverty line.
- Race/ethnicity of Pulaski County residents: 55.3 percent white, 34.8 percent black, 5.8 percent Hispanic; 4 percent other.
- In 2008, there were 1,845 arrests in Pulaski County for drug possession, selling, or manufacturing. Of these, 1,088 were for marijuana, 276 were for crack cocaine, and 291 were for methamphetamines.
- Arkansas ranks 47th among states for child well-being, and 60 percent of Arkansas infants and toddlers live in low-income families.
- There are currently 3,500 Arkansas children in the custody of DHS, including 500 awaiting adoption.
Highlights of Arkansas Safe Babies Court Team
- The Court Team Operates out of the 10th Division Circuit Court in Pulaski County, Judge Joyce Williams Warren, presiding. This is a dependency court.•Darneshia Bell was hired as Community Coordinator in December 2009.
- The Court Team began accepting cases in July 2010.
- Kristi McGibbony was hired as Assistant Community Coordinator in June 2011.
- Before the advent of the Court Team, Pulaski County’s only service specifically targeting infants and toddlers in foster care was a collaboration between Arkansas DHS (Division of Children and Family Services) and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hospital:
- All children (regardless of age) entering foster care in Arkansas receive a PACE Evaluation (Project for Adolescent and Child Evaluation) within 60 days of entering care. The PACE Evaluation is an extensive physical, developmental, and behavioral evaluation that includes audiological screening; vision screening; cognitive developmental assessment; academic assessment; behavioral/emotional assessment; medical evaluation; assessment of language, articulation, voice, and fluency; and oral motor/feeding evaluation when appropriate. The evaluations typically last four to five hours and involve a pediatrician/advanced practice nurse, psychologist/psychological examiner, and a speech-language pathologist.
Court Team Collaborations and Trainings
Since Ms. Bell joined the Court Team, she and the Court Team have:
- Established a Court Team that has grown to more than 50 members, representing more than 12 disciplines.
- Formed extensive collaborations with area service providers, CASA, and local universities and provided trainings to these and other groups.
- Brought nationally recognized trainers to Little Rock, including Larry Burd, Joy Osofsky, and Marty Byer, to educate the community regarding FASD, infant mental health, and visit coaching.
- Established a ZERO TO THREE protocol in Judge Warren’s court for Safe Babies Court Team cases. The protocol includes increasing visitation to three two-hour visits each week (six hours per week minimum), monthly family planning meetings (staffings), and formal review hearings every six weeks.
- Begun laying the groundwork for the Court Team project to roll out to other counties in Arkansas, including development and fundraising efforts.
- Sponsored the training of several local infant mental health providers in Child-Parent Psychotherapy.
- Placed particular emphasis on bringing visit coaching to the families in the project:
- The Court Team sponsored a two-day visit coaching training conducted by Marty Byer for Division of Children and Family Services caseworkers, CASAs, and other early childhood educators.
- Ms. Bell trained community volunteers and graduate students from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in visit coaching and implemented visit coaching as an extra service provided to families in the project.
- The Court Team uses visit coaching as a way to supplement DHS’s parenting courses. Visit coaching uses teachable moments to encourage parents to bond and respect their child’s individual needs and strengths.
In addition, Ms. Bell sits on the Arkansas FASD Task Force, the Governor’s Work-Life Balance Initiative, and Judge Warren’s Judicial Improvement Committee, and she collaborates with and attends meetings of the Arkansas Infant Mental Health Association.