Every six minutes in America, a baby is placed in foster care, away from the care of her parents. More than 415,000 children in the U.S. are in foster care today. Thirty percent of children entering the foster care system are babies and toddlers, and they are also the most likely to experience abuse and neglect.
These young children enter care when rapid brain development makes them vulnerable to adverse experiences that can undermine their positive growth. Strong, nurturing relationships are the essential ingredient to keeping their development on track. Yet, unmoored from their families, the plan for their care often focuses simply on safety rather than healing. As National Foster Care Month comes to a close, now is a good time to consider the role foster care can play in ensuring that children thrive.
Recently, I wrote about the need for a 21st Century Child Well-Being System that ideally would prevent abuse, neglect, and separation from family. Without such a system, we know that prevention becomes much more difficult. We should consider 1) babies' experiences when placement in foster care is needed and 2) how we can create the 21st Century Child Welfare System called for by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. ZERO TO THREE devotes both thought and action to applying what we know from the science to changes that can promote babies' well-being. As a nation, we can benefit from learning more about the unique role of communities and foster parents in creating better futures for babies and families, changing the child welfare system in the process.
Contrary to what many people believe, babies are not immune to environmental and social stress and instability. In fact, babies' brains make more than 700 new neural connections every second, and the basic cognitive and emotional architectures are formed and influenced through their daily interactions with caregivers. When babies are in loving, warm and nurturing environments, they are more likely to thrive and develop stronger connections in the parts of the brain associated with learning, decision-making, curiosity and emotional health - putting them on a path toward a healthy and productive adolescence and adulthood. On the other hand, when babies experience neglect or maltreatment, they are at much greater risk for emotional, social and cognitive damage -- issues that become harder and more costly to influence down the road.
Foster care often conjures up images of children adrift in a system without a family. But in reality, caring foster parents can be a rock of stability for children while families find their footing. Many foster children thrive in their foster families and through their foster experiences. Making this a reality for all children in the system -- especially the most vulnerable -- however, requires a systemic change, starting with collaboration and coordination across the multitude of state organizations and agencies whose mission is to help these populations. Children and families benefit when decision-making and oversight bodies align their systems, streamline channels of delivery and increase communications.
One solution for reform is the Safe Babies Court Teams Project, a proven and holistic approach at work right now in 15 local communities in eight states around the country. Safe Babies Court Teams are led by judges and grounded in the science of early development, bringing the families whose babies are placed in foster care together with child welfare staff, legal representatives, foster parents, and community service providers. Through community-wide collaboration, infants and toddlers and their families receive focused attention that recognizes individual strengths and challenges. Interventions are offered to meet the specific needs of each child and parent. Unlike typical foster care cases where formal hearings occur every three to six months, these families and the teams of professionals hold hearings and/or family team meetings at least once a month. The goal is to support the close, nurturing relationships vital to the child's positive early development while bolstering the family's ability to support that development and keep the baby safe and healthy. It gives the judge the best, most complete information possible on which to ultimately make a decision about a child's future.
The teams accomplish a larger mission as well -- promoting systemic change in the way community stakeholders work together on behalf of children and families surrounded by risk. They identify gaps in services and strategies for filling them. Evaluations have found that 97 percent of babies and families in the Court Teams have their service needs met. In fact, research shows that 99.05 percent of those in Safe Babies Court Teams were protected from further maltreatment.
When a lawsuit was filed on behalf of children in Mississippi's foster care system, it was revealed that one young Hattiesburg child entered care in 2003 at 2 ½ years old. In 16 days, she was moved three times, ending up in a shelter where she remained for three months. At the shelter she received her first medical exam, reacting in terror when the doctor tried to evaluate her for sexual abuse. Changes have since been made, and when infants and toddlers enter foster care in Hattiesburg, they are now incorporated into the Forrest County Safe Babies Court Team. They receive a developmental screening. They find medical homes with a developmental pediatrician. And each child is more likely to be placed in one foster home and remain there throughout his foster care experience.
Foster parents are a key link in the Court Team, which supports them in their role as a solid rock for babies and sometimes for the birth parents themselves. Consider the experience of a young mom in Iowa; she recounts the incredible anguish of holding her baby close with Child Protective Services knocking on the door for a removal she knew was coming. In the Polk County Safe Babies Court Team, her baby found nurturing care in the home of a remarkable foster family. The foster family provided support for the young mother, becoming mentors and parenting models. While that was unusual in the foster care world, it's common in Court Teams.
For the foster care system, this structure is invaluable for families and children. Many states have difficulty protecting their youngest victims of abuse and neglect. And many families are left without the resources to support their individual needs ranging from economic security to mental health to housing. That is why Safe Babies Court Teams provide the structure needed to address problems and maintain the necessary support and resources designed to help families across all channels. There is no finger-pointing; the multidisciplinary team uses its experiences with families to better understand how the child welfare system works and to advocate for reforms when barriers to helping families are identified. One Florida mom summed it up in a letter to the court: "Keep those amazing people that work so hard to bring families back together and each and every person that is involved is necessary because they all had a role in helping us to complete our tasks."
Safe Babies Court Teams have worked with 975 infants and toddlers and more than 1,100 parents. Each child benefits from child-focused services to address medical problems and developmental delays, quality early learning experiences, and frequent family time. With a spotlight on foster care this month, I hope more jurisdictions will explore the pragmatic and proven approach Safe Babies Court Teams can bring to communities that struggle to ensure the systems in place to work with parents and protect babies are as reliable and successful as possible.