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Court Practices

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A working knowledge of topics that are rarely included in law school curricula is essential to competent advocacy and decision-making for maltreated infants, toddlers, and their families involved in dependency court.

Examples include but are not limited to: brain development, child development, trauma-informed care, adverse childhood experiences, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, in utero drug exposure, mental health, historical trauma, and early childhood education. Positive outcomes often depend on court-ordered permanency plans that are well grounded in science, such as designing a family contact plan that honors developmental needs for building and maintaining healthy and trusting relationships and the use of evidence-based therapeutic interventions. 

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of the need for the legal community to be informed of effective interventions and an accompanying increase in the availability of credible resources to support judges and lawyers in their efforts to improve court practice. Safe Babies Court Teams™ across the country are taking the lead in implementing science-based responses that have been shown to improve health and safety, expedite permanency, and support well-being. The following resources will support your efforts to bring science to justice and improve outcomes for this vulnerable population.

Putting the Science of Early Childhood to Work in the Courtroom
Developed by ZERO TO THREE, this e-learning resource supports enhanced practice with very young children, providing judges and attorneys with the information and strategies they need to secure a bright future for the children who come before the court.

Safe Babies Court Team TM (SBCT) Family First Toolkit
The Safe Babies Court Team ™ (SBCT) Family First Toolkit resource was specifically designed to assist Judges and stakeholders in advocating for implementation of the SBCT Approach within their states’ child welfare systems; and allow for a better understanding on how SBCT and the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) fit together and the steps one can take to get their state to embrace SBCT as part of its FFPSA plan.   To download the technical guide, click here.

Glossary of Key Terms for Infant-Toddler Court Teams: A Guide for Judges
Developed by the QIC-CT, this glossary of terms serves as a reference for judges and all stakeholders working with infant-toddler court teams.

Questions Every Judge and Lawyer Should Ask About Infants and Toddlers in the Child Welfare System
Increasing numbers of infants and young children with complicated and serious physical, mental health, and developmental problems are being placed in foster care. This Technical Assistance Brief, published by NCJFCJ, contains checklists that have been developed for use by judges, attorneys, child advocates, and other child welfare professionals in meeting the wide range of health care needs of this growing population.

Enhanced Resource Guidelines
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has announced the release of the Enhanced version of the Resource Guidelines to improve court practice in child abuse and neglect cases, 20 years after the original publication. This document will serve as NCJFCJ’s blueprint for training on child abuse and neglect practices.

Child Welfare and Our Youngest Children: A Series on Improving Outcomes for Families with Babies and Toddlers was developed for the Drake University Law Review to consider some of the lessons learned from Safe Babies Court Teams and to discuss how these lessons can inform positive changes in how the legal system serves families in Iowa and beyond. The foreword in this four-part series highlights how, over the last decade or so, much has been learned about the best ways to serve families with infants and toddlers in the child welfare system. Iowa has been on the leading edge of this learning and change, as Des Moines, Iowa was chosen as one of the first Safe Babies Court Teams established by ZERO TO THREE.

  • Informed Compassion: The Safe Babies Court Team Approach to Serving Infants, Toddlers, and their Families in Dependency Cases
    The second in the four-part series, this article by Constance Cohen, Retired Juvenile Judge, explores how the recent explosion of research on early brain development demonstrates how critical early experiences are to mental health, physical health, healthy relationships, and wellbeing. Children who have been exposed to abuse and neglect are especially vulnerable to poor “cognitive, emotional, social and physical health.” Dependency courtrooms have a unique opportunity to convene the right team needed to help heal a family and ensure the timely delivery of appropriate services.
  • Physician Partners in Safe Babies Courts
    The third in the four-part series is an article by Rizwan Z. Shah, M.D., FAAP providing information regarding the dynamic and continuous interaction between biology and experience that can negatively alter the developmental trajectory of a child in the absence of appropriate supportive measures. The judicial system has seen an alarming increase in the number of young children rotating in and out of home placements due to unstable and often abusive biological home environments. Often, young children are caught in a lengthy legal process to decide their permanent placement. Those professionals charged with the responsibility to represent children often receive very little education regarding early childhood development and the harmful, often permanent, negative impact caused by a disruption in developmental processes during early years.

When You Decide: A Judge’s Guide to Pregnancy Prevention Among Foster Youth
Judges play an important role in ensuring that youth get the support, knowledge, and tools needed to make healthy long-term decisions regarding sex and childbearing. A new judge’s guide to pregnancy prevention among foster youth is now available from the National Campaign and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. The guide supports judges in ensuring that those involved with foster youth focus on sexual and reproductive health as an integral part of the youth’s case plan. 

Healthy Beginnings, Healthy Futures: A Judge’s Guide
This guide for judges helps ensure that as a nation, we equip the bench to do better by babies every day. Judges can be key players in breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect. The guide: addresses the health needs of very young children in the child welfare system; shares current research on physical health, child development, attachment, infant mental health, early care and education; and provides tools and strategies to help judges better promote outcomes for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who enter their courtrooms.

One Family, One Judge, No Continuances
The current study builds upon an emerging body of research examining the effectiveness of the one family, one judge model in improving case efficiency. The study first examines the expectation that continuances delay case processing, then examines whether the implementation of a one family, one judge model of judicial oversight reduces continuances. Results reveal that continuances delay case events up to the adjudication hearing, but do not delay time to permanency.

Project ONE Key Principles 
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) Project ONE aims to provide judges and allied professionals with a guiding model, training, technical assistance, and supporting research while they examine and modify practice to maximize judicial coordination of dependency; delinquency; and family law, including domestic violence cases, both within and among courts.

Key Principles for Permanency Planning for Children
Judging in juvenile court is specialized and complex, going beyond the traditional role of the judge. Juvenile court judges, as the gatekeepers to the foster care system and guardians of the original problem-solving court, must engage families, professionals, organizations and communities to effectively support child safety, permanency, and well-being. Judges must encourage the court system to respond to children and their families with both a sense of urgency and dignity. These key principles from NCJFCJ provide a foundation for courts to exercise the critical duties entrusted to them by the people and the laws of the land. 

Toolkit for Court Performance Measurement in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases
In December, 2008, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published the Toolkit for Court Performance Measurement in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases, a collaborative project among the NCJFCJ, National Center for State Courts, and the American Bar Association. The purpose of the performance measures “is to help courts establish their baseline practices; diagnose what they need to improve; and use that information to make improvements, track their efforts and identify, document, and replicate positive results.” One of the measures related to due process and fairness, is designed to measure the percentage of child abuse and neglect cases in which the same judicial officer presides over all hearings – further emphasizing the importance of one family one judge.​ To download the key measures, click here. To download the technical guide, click here.

The Judicial Role in Creating and Supporting CASA/GAL Programs
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and guardian ad litem (GAL) programs provide critical support for abused and neglected children who are under the protection of the juvenile or family court. Since the first CASA program was started in 1977 by a juvenile court judge, trained, court-appointed volunteers have demonstrated that they effectively support abused and neglected children in addition to providing the court with important information concerning the children they work with. This article describes how judges can create, support, and sustain CASA programs in their own jurisdictions so that these children will be better served.

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Additional ITCP Resources

View additional information on improving safety, permanency, and well-being for very young children in foster care, or at risk of removal, and their families.

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