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Helping Young Children in the Foster System

May 26, 2016

During National Foster Care Month and all year round, ZERO TO THREE’s Safe Babies Court Teams approach improves outcomes for babies and toddlers.

Children beloved by nurturing caregivers develop stronger connections in the parts of the brain associated with learning, decision-making, curiosity and emotional health. Credit: Brayden Howie/Shutterstock.com

Every seven minutes, an infant or toddler is removed from home due to alleged abuse or neglect. When that happens, those children are often placed in a child welfare system that is harmful to their development. Nationally, children under three are the most likely to be abused and neglected, the most likely to enter foster care, and the most likely to die as a result of maltreatment.

ZERO TO THREE works to change that. Our Safe Babies Court Teams approach transforms child welfare into the practice of child well-being by using the science of early childhood development. The program connects babies and their families with the support and services they need to promote healthy child development, while at the same time ensuring speedier exits from the system.

Meet Amber & Gary

Amber and Gary know first-hand the kind of success this program can bring. The couple spent five months in a similar Early Childhood Court program in Florida. “We had our hearts and minds set no matter how long this process would take, it didn’t matter because we will do whatever it takes to get our son back home,” Amber said. “The reward of the program is the most amazing gift ever. We now have our son home permanently.”

How it Works

Safe Babies Court Teams improve how the courts, child welfare agencies, and related child-serving organizations work together, share information, and expedite services for young children. In doing so, it addresses the trauma they’ve already experienced, partners with parents to make needed changes, and tackles issues in the child welfare system that prevent families from succeeding. The court team works with the larger community to ensure that children and families receive the services they need in a timely manner.

In 15 local communities across 8 states, Safe Babies Court Teams have collaborated to:

  • Protect babies from further harm and address the damage already done, and
  • Tackle the structural issues in the child welfare system that prevent families from succeeding.

Safe Babies Court Teams are led by judges who collaborate with child development specialists to create teams of community stakeholders. Together they provide services to abused and neglected infants and toddlers and their families so children can swiftly reach safe, loving permanency. There is no finger-pointing; the multidisciplinary team uses its experience with families to better understand how the child welfare system works and to advocate for reforms when barriers to helping families are identified.

ZERO TO THREE’s approach is proving successful. Research about Safe Babies Court Teams demonstrates:

  • 97 percent of identified service needs of infants and toddlers served by the Safe Babies Court Teams had either been fully met or were in the process of being met.
  • Children served by the Safe Babies Court Teams exited the foster care system approximately one year earlier than children in a matched comparison group and were more likely to reach permanency with a member of their biological family.
  • Around 99 percent of infants and toddlers served were protected from further maltreatment.

In every case that comes before a Safe Babies Court Team judge, a multidisciplinary team weighs in on how to best ensure that the child reaches safe nurturing permanency as quickly as possible. That team includes the child’s parent(s). Because there are so many eyes on the child, the judge knows that recommendations from the child welfare agency worker, attorneys, service providers, and family members have been carefully considered. This allows the judge to be more confident in ruling, and increases the likelihood that orders are based on a realistic assessment of what is in the child’s best interests.

The Importance of this Approach

The basic foundation of brain architecture is sculpted by experiences between birth and a child’s third birthday. Parents play a critical role in determining which parts of a baby’s brain will be strong; an infant’s experiences with primary caregivers determine where the strongest neural connections are made. Children who experience maltreatment develop stronger connections in the fight-flight-freeze brain centers. They see the world as dangerous; they are fearful, vigilant and distrusting of others. Children beloved by nurturing caregivers develop stronger connections in the parts of the brain associated with learning, decision-making, curiosity and emotional health. They see the world as safe; that others can be trusted, and they can be open to new experiences.

Learn More

Find more information about ZERO TO THREE’s Safe Babies Court Teams.

Learn More

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