When parents go to court, we feel scared and alone. A project to make sure that babies return to family as often as possible is trying to change that. I interviewed Lucy Hudson, director of ZERO to THREE’s Safe Babies Court Teams Project, which educates judges, lawyers and caseworkers about infant and toddler development and supports the parent and the court in working together.
My kids were removed as babies. Learning about this project, I wondered if I would have felt hope when I felt hopeless and worth when I felt worthless after my children’s removal. Parents and babies in this project get therapy sessions that focus on the parent bonding with the baby. I would really appreciate that therapy, even now that my children are home.
Q: Why does this project focus on babies in foster care?
A: The first three years of life, a baby’s brain is developing faster. It’s like you’re building the foundation of a house. If the baby is having a traumatic experience, the foundation of the house is shaky. Instead of using concrete, you’re building a house on mud. Babies need a sturdy foundation to have a smart, healthy life. The sooner you can strengthen the foundation, the better for the architecture of the baby’s brain.
People who study the brain say “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Meaning that the parts of the brain that are stimulated the most come out the strongest. If the baby spends all his time feeling afraid, that’s the strongest part of the brain. That affects learning. If the baby feels safe in his environment, he can explore and be curious and learn new things. If you’re afraid all the time, you can’t be curious—your primary goal is to keep you from being hurt. We want babies to feel safe and grow up strong and curious.
Our first goal is to support the parents to get all the help they need to be safely reunited with their baby. We think the best outcome for a baby is to be safely returned home.
Q: What is different for families involved with Safe Babies Court Teams?
A: Typically in the court system, the parent is the odd man out. When you get to court, there are a lot of different people in the room, they don’t bother explaining who they are, and people are arguing with each other a lot. It feels very threatening. In the Safe Babies courts, we have someone whose job is to coordinate what everybody does so instead of fighting in court, they’re focused on the most important thing: How is this baby doing? How can we give the best life to this baby?
We support parents and babies by making sure they spend time together at least twice a week, if not every day. In order to have a really strong bond, Mom and Dad have to be there for the holding, crying, bathing, feeding, sleeping. One or two hours a week is not the way for a good strong relationship to develop.
What we provide is respect. We honor the fact that parents love their kids. There may be reasons that things are not going well right now, but they love their kids and want the best for their children.
Q: How do you support families in reunifying?
A: One thing we do is send parents and their babies to Child-Parent Psychotherapy. That gives parents weekly time with baby and a trained mental health expert where parents can talk about what might be worrisome or bothering them. As mom and baby spend time with a counselor, mom gets to talk about anything the baby is doing that she might have questions about, mom and baby play together, and mom and counselor talk about what play is like for the baby. This helps parents learn to understand the baby’s needs better
We try to get the visits taking place out of the child welfare office. In Little Rock, Arkansas, we work with churches in the community so that parents don’t have far to go. They have made a little visiting space with rug, toys and books. We provide Visit Coaching, too, so that parents have someone to talk with about what they would like to do with the baby during the visit and how the family can say goodbye when the visit is over. That’s a hard time for the parent—saying goodbye while child is in foster care is a very difficult separation. So after the visit, the visit coach and parent talk about how the visit went and what the family will do the next time.
Another step is to do a developmental screening for the baby to identify any problems. Developmental problems can make it harder to parent the child. We get the parent involved in any services so they can learn to care for their child’s special needs.
We regularly do trainings for court and child welfare personnel about child development and the effect of moving the child away from the parent. It’s important to recognize that separation is a traumatic experience, and to reduce the times you move babies from one home to another, because every move is another painful experience for the baby.
Q: Is the project working?
A: Yes. We’ve done three evaluations. The first thing is that our children are safer. In 2009 we found that 99% of babies with the Court Teams did not experience any further maltreatment.
Second, in 2011, compared to a national group, our babies got their cases closed about a year faster.
Third, our babies returned home to family a lot more often than other babies in foster care. For our babies, the most common type of permanency was reunification with the mother. For babies in the national sample, it was adoption.
Q: What impact do you see in court?
A: We’ve seen our courts go from people yelling and asking for delays in cases for as long as possible to people perceiving themselves as being on the same team and rooting for the parents to succeed. Our cases meet once a month in court. Caseworkers usually do things right before court hearings. Well, if the court hearings are months apart, they’re not doing that much. If we’re meeting monthly, that’s a lot of accountability.
We also see that lawyers who knew nothing about child development are starting to ask different questions: Has this child had a developmental screening? How often is the child seeing Mom? The individual people involved in the Safe Babies court are taking these ideas into all of their cases.
Now we’re expanding our training to help court personnel recognize the impact of racism. People of color are more likely to lose their children to foster care than white parents. It’s important to recognize the long historical experience of African American and Native American parents. Having a child taken into foster care seems a lot like having your child sold off to a different plantation, and there’s a long history of telling people who aren’t white and middle class that there’s something wrong with them. These historical echoes can be very painful.
We also know that the difficulties we see in court—addiction, domestic violence, abuse—are symptoms. They’re the results of a desperately painful childhood. People don’t wake up and say they want to be an addict. They can’t bear to face the world and all of the terrible things that have happened to them.
When the project was set up, it was focusing on the well being of the baby but we considered the parents’ well being less important. Then, in 2005, we visited a model court in Miami where the judge had a really strong collaboration with a mental health program that provided Child-Parent Psychotherapy. We realized that you can’t work with babies without working with their parents. We also realized that there are so many roadblocks for parents. Parents are facing a lot of obstacles and need a lot of support.