Helpful Intervention – A new program prepares families to go to court

Interview by Keyna Franklin

Kiran Malpe is a social worker with Strong Starts Court Initiative, a program that provides information to judges, lawyers, ACS, and workers about the science of human development and how some court decisions can traumatize families. 

Q: Can you tell us about Strong Starts and about your role there?

A: Strong Starts has a dual mission to bring expertise in early child development to all stages of court proceedings, and to strongly support infants and toddlers, their caregivers and families throughout their case. Normally when a case comes in, the judge puts in a fact-finding date. That’s when the court will hear evidence about the alleged abuse or neglect. Fact findings in NYC can be four, six, nine months or even a year into the case. During that time, parents are expected to do a lot of things to get their children home even though nothing has been proven. In the Strong Starts court, families see the judge monthly until fact-finding. Before each court appearance, we hold a clinical conference with the family and the attorneys, without the judge present.  It’s an opportunity to come up with solutions. Often what happens in court is that ACS submits, say, a letter showing that the parent has a positive tox. If that’s going to be submitted in court, we discuss it beforehand and we can let the judge know that we already made a plan for the CASAC counselor to connect with the parent twice a week. We come in with a plan for resolving challenges. Parents tend to do what they need to do because they feel they have support. The judge can actually get to know the family better. It’s important that they have time to see a person before them as a judge, not a file or docket. 

Q: How do you see trauma and stress affecting parents when they come into the Strong Starts court?

A: Walking into courthouse can be very stressful and traumatic, so is the entire process of becoming court-involved — sitting waiting for your case to be called, meeting an attorney and other parties for the first time and having to trust them. It’s upsetting.

Trauma is held in our bodies. Parents come in being aggressive, even threatening or hostile. They’re activated, and once you’re in an activated state, it’s hard to get out of it. What helpful is to recognize what that looks like and feels like in their bodies. A lot of the families who are court-involved are always ready for something to happen. Their survival instinct is activated a lot of the time, so it’s very difficult to recognize.

That’s why our conferences are held a couple days before the court date. If we know there’s going to be disagreement, and it’s unlikely the parent will get what they want, they have some time to process the reason for that and what they can do. It reduces worry. Too often parents walk into court and hear information for the first time. 

Q: We read that part of your role is to identify high-quality providers. How do you determine that a provider is high-quality?

A: I look for things like – is the person leading this program really welcoming and not just handing [parents] some forms to fill out and asking about traumatic stuff. I also check in with parents after and ask, “Was she nice? Did you like her?”

I also review reports to know what the provider is reporting to the court. Parents need to know that this person will not tell the court everything they say. Progress and insight are what judges are looking for, not details of what the parent disclosed.

Q: How have you helped parents deal with stress so that they can plan well for their families?

A: Planning is really important during your case, and there’s a part of our brain that plans, organizes and carries out our tasks. Under stress, a parent may have difficulty maintaining routine in their life. Sometimes parents have a cognitive delay and it can be hard to get up on time, think ahead about travel times, plan out transportation. Stress and depression can also affect our planning, too. 

I’ve gotten parents planners and calendars: Hang this in your home. This is your weekly appointment. I’ve gone to their home and said, “Let’s fill this out together.” I’ve texted people to get them up for appointments in the morning.

It’s challenging for child welfare professionals. They just think, “The parent is choosing not to do the right thing.” I ask, “What’s preventing you from doing what you need to be doing?” It’s very important for a parent to contribute to identifying what’s going wrong and what’s going to help them. 

Q: Court itself is stressful. How have you seen parents prepare themselves and cope with the stress of court?

A: Taking a couple deep breaths and pausing. Another tool is journaling. I give journals and pens to a lot of parents and tell them to write, write, write. I help them think of mantras to repeat to themselves. I’ve given parents laminated pictures of their child to keep in their pocket, or on a keychain, something that can keep them focused when they’re overwhelmed. 

Grounding exercises are also helpful. Simple things like putting your feet on the ground, your back on a chair, and closing your eyes. Saying to yourself, “I’m planted, I’m present, I’m here right now” and feeling your body in the chair.

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