The Forrest County Safe Babies Court Team in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was created in November 2005. Before the Court Team was established, limited resources were available within the community for infants and toddlers in foster care and their families. When the Court Team was created and began holding monthly team meetings, both the Court Team and the community began to realize that many more resources were available than previously thought. The problem had been the lack of communication among the service providers, and bringing providers together for Court Team meetings and other related activities helped improve communication. Local agencies now take a “big-box store” approach to providing services. Agency representatives have come to realize that sharing resources and collaborating with one another improves service delivery. This approach has had a positive impact on the quality of care provided to infants and toddlers in foster care and their families.
For example, now all children ages zero to three entering foster care have a Part C evaluation (First Steps) through the Mississippi State Department of Health. A pediatrician rather than an emergency room doctor or family practice physician examines and treats these very young children. In fact, the pediatrician routinely reserves spaces in the schedule for these children. Often, biological parents are asked to attend these appointments with the social worker and foster parent or relative.
Since the establishment of the Court Team, visitation has increased tremendously—from once every three weeks to three to five times each week. In some cases, the parents are allowed to visit in the foster home or home of the relative in which the child is placed. Fathers are encouraged to be involved, and some children are placed with fathers and paternal family members. Before the establishment of the Court Team, children were placed as far as two to four hours away from their parents, which provided obstacles to visitation. Children are now placed in Forrest County or one of the adjoining counties to ensure that appropriate visitation occurs.
Court cases are now heard every 30 days. This systemic change has made parents and social workers more accountable and has encouraged them to have greater commitment to their service plans. In addition, the average number of placements of children being followed by the program has decreased since the Court Team was created. Children are reaching permanency much faster, and have transition plans in place and implemented prior to their return home.
The ZERO TO THREE program has brought national training to the community and has supported Court Team members and the Forrest County Youth Court judge’s travel to other sites for training. Local and national training opportunities have helped community stakeholders learn new strategies and techniques for working with very young children and their families.
In the future, the Forrest County Safe Babies Court Team plans to continue to help parents and children receive the services and support needed to help restore families in Forrest County. The Court Team hopes to replicate this model of success throughout the state of Mississippi.
Supervising Community Coordinator: Josie Brown
Phone: (601) 545-6185