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October 2012Vol. 13, No. 9Safe Babies Court Teams Project

By Patricia A. Cole, Director of Government Relations, ZERO TO THREE, and Lucy Hudson, Director, Safe Babies Court Teams Project, ZERO TO THREE

Children under age 3 compose almost one-third of children entering foster care and more than one-quarter of all substantiated cases of abuse or neglect. These events occur at the most vulnerable developmental stage of life. Research shows the critical role a baby's relationships with his closest caregivers play in the complex social, emotional, and intellectual development unfolding in the earliest years. Those relationships shape every aspect of early human development, from the brain's evolving circuitry to the child's capacity for empathy. Warm, responsive parenting nurtures healthy development. Harsh or unpredictable caregiving has negative life-long implications if not properly addressed. Fortunately, research confirms that these early years present an unparalleled window of opportunity to effectively intervene with very young victims of maltreatment. Our task is to translate what we know from the science into what we do for children.

Inspired by judges committed to changing the odds for young children in their courts, ZERO TO THREE began the Safe Babies Court Teams Project to put developmental science into action. Court Teams in eight communities promote the healthy development of infants and toddlers. A key focus is improving how the courts, child welfare agencies, and related child-serving organizations work together, share information, and expedite services for young children and their families. Safe Babies Court Teams are led by judges who collaborate with child development specialists to create teams of community stakeholders. Together, they wrap a rich web of services around maltreated infants, toddlers, and families.

Two evaluations point to the effectiveness of the Court Teams developmental approach. Key findings include:

  • Roughly 99 percent of 186 children were protected from further maltreatment while under court supervision.
  • Approximately 97 percent of children received needed services (Hafford & DeSantis, 2009).
  • Nearly 300 children monitored by Safe Babies Court Teams reached permanency 2.67 times faster than the 511 children included in the national comparison group (p=.000) (McCombs-Thornton, & Foster, 2012).

The Court Team experience highlights the potential for better State and Federal child welfare policies that recognize the unique developmental needs of infants and toddlers. To explore what such a shift would encompass, ZERO TO THREE convened an ad hoc working group, including the American Humane Association, Center for the Study of Social Policy, Child Welfare League of America, and Children's Defense Fund. In May 2011, we jointly published A Call to Action on Behalf of Maltreated Infants and Toddlers urging State and Federal policymakers to infuse developmental science into the child welfare system. Five elements lead to an action checklist: ensuring developmentally informed decisions; promoting stable, caring relationships; providing early, comprehensive services; creating community linkages; and using data and research to drive policy and practice.

ZERO TO THREE also developed an assessment and planning tool based on the Call to Action, again collaborating with our working group that grew to include Child Trends, National Black Child Development Institute, National Council of La Raza, and Voices for America's Children.

The result was A Developmental Approach to Child Welfare Services for Infants, Toddlers, and Their Families: A Self-Assessment Tool for States and Counties Administering Child Welfare Services. This tool guides State and county child welfare administrators in examining how they embed a developmental approach in serving infants, toddlers, and their families. The process should be collaborative and data-driven. After an introductory webinar, the tool was widely disseminated to State child welfare officials and stakeholders. Copies are available here: A survey of all States on their child welfare policies and practices around infants and toddlers is underway with results expected next spring.

Infusing the science of early development into care for maltreated infants and toddlers is an ongoing process involving local communities and State and Federal government. The Safe Babies Court Teams and the infant-toddler child welfare working group look forward to the national conversation we hope the new focus on young children will spark.

Hafford, C., & DeSantis, D. (2009). Evaluation of the court teams for maltreated infants and toddlers project: final report. Office of Justice Grant No. 2006-MU-MU-0065. Arlington (VA): James Bell Associates.

McCombs-Thornton, K. L., & Foster, E. M. (2012). The effect of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams Initiative on types of exits from the foster care system—A competing risks analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(1), 169-178. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.09.013