When an infant or toddler is maltreated, the effects can last a lifetime.
Renee Nilson, a therapist at The Centers, can name a few: There are developmental delays and attachment issues that manifest in young children, she said. These turn into problems at school, substance abuse or mental illness as the child grows.
And when that child becomes a parent, she said, it is not uncommon to find them back on the radar of the Florida Department of Children and Families. As parents, Nilson said, they often find themselves playing a new role in the same troubling relationship.
That is the cycle that a new court initiative in Marion County aims to break.
Baby Court, also known as Early Childhood Court, launched in Marion County this fall amid a push for statewide implementation. It joins the ranks of other problem-solving courts at the Marion County Judicial Center, such as Teen Court and Drug Court, in focusing attention and resources on a particular set of court proceedings.
Marion County’s Baby Court focuses on dependency cases for children who are age 3 and younger. There are two families on the docket to date. Several people in the local and statewide Baby Court initiatives said these families would have been making regular court appearances regardless of their decision to participate in Baby Court. That is typical of any dependency case: When a child comes to the attention of the Department of Children and Families for abuse or neglect, a judge is tasked with determining a safe living situation for that child.
Baby Court shares that goal — a safe and permanent home for the child within a year — but draws on a few extra resources to get there.
Participating families meet monthly with a number of caseworkers, therapists and legal teams to ensure the child does not slip through any cracks. And they are kept busy between the meetings as well, committing to regular visits with the child, classes on topics such as parenting or anger management, and weekly sessions with therapists such as Nilson, who works with the parent and child, individually and collectively, with a goal of breaking the cycle of parent-to-child maltreatment.
“We see these kids who were abused or neglected, and now they’re the parents,” said Mimi Graham, who has been influential in bringing Baby Courts to Florida as the director of Florida State University Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy. “If we can heal their underlying trauma … they can increase their capacity to be really good parents.”
Reuniting parents and children is the ideal outcome, Graham said, and making that possible is the goal of child-parent psychotherapy. As a key component of the Baby Court model in Florida, this specialized therapy recognizes the psychological needs of the parent, who likely had very little parenting themselves, and then starts from the basics in teaching them how to care for their children.
The child’s best interest remains the top priority. So, if the parent can’t quite handle it, Graham said, then adoption is also considered a success.
“Either way, we don’t want to have (the children) languish in the system for more than 12 months,” Graham said.
***Although Marion County’s Baby Court is still fairly new, Jeff Fuller, public information officer with the 5th Judicial Circuit, said the county could eventually handle 10 or 12 families on a Baby Court docket with its current resources.
Nilson said she would eventually like to see every eligible family come through Baby Court. Eligibility in Marion County depends on both the child and the parent, she said. The child must be 3 or younger and in the custody of the Department of Children and Families, where assessments are performed to determine psychological trauma. The parent must agree to participate, and is ineligible if actively using drugs or alcohol or is suspected of physically harming the child.
Once accepted to Baby Court, Nilson said, the approach to their dependency cases becomes far more holistic.
“They’re going from the perspective of managing to the perspective of healing,” she said.
And as one of two therapists at The Centers who is certified in child-family psychotherapy, that is the element she focuses on.
Nilson works with Baby Court families at least once a week, she said, meeting them in her cozy office at The Centers or at their homes, day cares or more personal locations. Sometimes she meets with the parents, to address their psychological needs, and sometimes with the child. Often she meets with both together, observing and guiding their interactions.
She might record video as the parent interacts with their baby, maybe as they read a book together. Then she watches the video with the parents afterward, drawing attention to their or their children’s behaviors.
Often, she said, the parents do not understand their child’s needs. They might be setting their expectations too high or simply do not understand why a particular situation is dangerous.
“Things that have gone on in the family that are damaging may seem normal to them, because it’s been going on for so long,” she said. “We teach them why (the behaviors are damaging) and how that connects to where they’re at and why their children are where they’re at.”
In the few months she has been working with one couple, she said, they have made progress.
“You see the light bulb go off,” she said. “I’ve had parents say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing the same thing that my mother did, and I don’t want to do that. … Stop me.’ And that’s what we do.”
***Statistics on the successes of Baby Courts across the country — and on the consequences of continuing with the current dependency system — make the implementation of Baby Courts an easy decision, Graham said.
But they hold an additional economic benefit as well.
“We’re cutting the time in half that kids are staying the system,” Graham said.
And that saves money: about $7,300 for every child who leaves the foster care system earlier than they would have, according to research through the child- and toddler-focused organization Zero to Three
Miami-Dade County implemented the first Baby Court, the Miami Child Well-Being Court, more than a decade ago. While the success of that court has sparked Baby Courts across the country, in Des Moines, Iowa, and New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, Florida is the first state to push for statewide implementation.
Carrie Toy, Florida’s statewide community coordinator, said Florida is well-suited for statewide implementation. The Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy and the Florida Office of Court Improvement, for example, had already taken a lead in advocating for Baby Courts. And funding became available with a grant through the Quality Improvement Center for Research-Based Infant-Toddler Court Teams, which helped to put plans into action.
After a statewide “kick off” in April, Toy said, 20 Florida counties are currently in some stage of implementation. At least two more are exploring the idea.
Florida counties that have been hearing Baby Court cases for years suggest favorable outcomes for those, like Marion County, that are just starting.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper of the results she has seen in Pasco County since she began overseeing a pilot Baby Court there.
She noted one young mother who especially demonstrated the effect of Baby Court. The woman gave birth to two children before the county implemented Baby Court, Tepper explained, and tested positive for drugs when each was born. That immediately put her in under the watch of the Department of Children and Families, and she eventually lost custody of the children.
With her two younger children, Tepper said, she faced an almost parallel set of circumstances. But this time, with the help of therapists through Pasco County’s brand-new Baby Court, she was able to handle all the challenges that came her way.
Baby Court, Tepper said, has made all the difference.
“I’m confident she won’t be back,” she said.
Contact Nicki Gorny at 352-867-4065, email@example.com or @Nicki_Gorny.