By Lucy Hudson, Director, Safe Babies Court Team™ Project, and Content Expert/Writer, Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant–Toddler Court Teams (QIC-CT)
When we began to develop the Safe Babies Court Team (SBCT) approach in 2005, we knew that there were some things that set us apart from well-meaning but generalized advice to “be trauma-informed” or “family-focused” in our efforts to support families in the child welfare system. Knowing what was important for vulnerable babies and their families led us to some very specific recommendations: These recommendations led to the development of an approach that, in addition to incorporating sensitivity to the developmental needs of infants and toddlers, addresses the poverty, trauma, and racism that most of our families confront and that affects their ability to parent.
These are the recommendations that I believe have truly been making a difference for children and families:
- Recognize that each parent and child is a unique individual who will benefit from a specific array of services and support. The only cookie-cutter element should be our respect for parents that leads to kindness in the way we interact with families and with one another.
- Eliminate changes in substitute caregivers. A child entering foster care (extended family members or unrelated foster parents) should leave home for the care of a loving foster parent who can provide a permanent home if the parents cannot overcome the challenges that landed the child in foster care.
- Provide lots of opportunities for children and their parents to spend time together every week. Give the parents support in building healthy relationships with their children through coaching.
- Plan for both the child’s return home (always Plan A) and for the child to become a member of her foster family (Plan B), from the day the case opens. Foster parents should see themselves as extended family members whose primary role includes mentoring parents.
- Rely on evidence-based practices for the interventions selected for each family. Chief among them has always been Child–Parent Psychotherapy.
- Hold monthly court hearings (and/or family team meetings) in front of judges who see themselves as community leaders.
- Offer ongoing interdisciplinary training that expands our collective knowledge about infant and early childhood mental health, the impact of trauma on healthy development and family relationships, and a whole host of related topics. We are always looking for new perspectives and scientific breakthroughs that could influence our actions going forward.
- Hire a full-time coordinator who brings together every public and private sector agency that could play a role in improving the functioning of the child welfare system.
- Intervene at two levels:
- in the day-to-day practice of child welfare case management for families with infants and toddlers; and
- at the policy, regulation, and legal level where it might be possible to make the entire child welfare system more responsive to the needs of all struggling families.
How well have our intentions for SBCT matched the outcomes where it has been used? Recently, the SBCT approach was evaluated by RTI International. Their analysis of SBCT implementation in 12 sites across 6 states confirmed and expanded on the outcomes noted in previous evaluations completed in 2009 and 2012. In brief, RTI found:
- The federal standard for states for recurrence of maltreatment is 9.1% during a 12-month period. For our 12 sites using the SBCT approach only 1.2% of children experience maltreatment recurrence.
- 86% of children remained in their first or second placement.
- 94% of children are in out-of-home placement for less than 12 months.
- These findings apply across all children regardless of race or ethnicity.
Most exciting for me was our success in achieving these outcomes for all children and families, regardless of race. Racial injustice has been a focus of our work from very early on. Our coordinators and judges have always been racially diverse which has allowed us to engage in rich discussion about what racial disparities look like in the child welfare system and how SBCTs can ensure people of color are treated with respect. One way we’ve tried to move the needle is through training. Our first formal training took place in New Orleans in December 2011 and was titled Healing From the Historical Trauma of Slavery—An Intervention for Child Welfare Court Teams. The next year our annual Cross Sites meeting took place in Cherokee, NC, where the keynote was titled The Impact of Historical Trauma on Native Families.
In addition to the formal evaluation findings, we are continuously learning from our experience working with families in communities. For example, I regularly talk to our coordinators across the sites about the parents they meet. It was from the coordinators I learned how common it was for parents to have been sexually abused as children. Our focus on childhood trauma, and our commitment to giving parents a safe, supportive place to share sensitive personal experiences, led to the publication of a brief on how prevalent adverse childhood experiences are among our parents and children.
If I had to describe the characteristic that best explains the SBCT approach, it would be kindness. Parents have said to us:
- You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
- You treated us, not as problems, but as parents. It was a beautiful feeling. And me and my family were grateful.
- I came into court just broke. I was broken and [my community coordinator] let me know that I can fix myself; that I’m worth it. She totally made me believe that I am worth it.
In a system parents expect to be punitive and harsh, where they expect to be shamed for their parenting, often without understanding what they did wrong, the SBCT approach offers them hope for a future with their children—or at least a future with some personal dignity and self-respect in which the possibility exists of successfully raising children.
Foster, E. M., & McCombs-Thornton, K. L. (2012). *Investing in our most vulnerable: A cost analysis of the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Court Teams Initiative*. Birmingham, AL: Economics for the Public Good, LLC; Hafford, C., McDonnell, C., Kass, L., DeSantis, J., & Dong, T. (2009). Evaluation of the Court Teams for maltreated infants and toddlers: Final report. Report submitted to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, by James Bell Associates, Arlington, VA; McCombs-Thornton, K. L. (2012). The effect of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams initiative on types of exits from the foster care system—A competing risks analysis. *Children and Youth Services Review 34*, 169–178.
Casanueva, C., Harris, S., Carr, C., Burfeind, C., & Smith, K. (2017). Evaluation report of the Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-toddler Court Teams.
From the Editor:
To learn more about ZERO TO THREE’s Safe Babies Court Team work, explore these resources on our website: