Jun 4, 2015

Protecting Children in State Custody

Ruth E. Houtte is the Policy and Operations Manager for the Department for Children and Families, Family Services Division, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. She formerly served as the project director for the Grafton County New Hampshire Greenbook Project. Ms. Houtte has 17 years experience with the Massachusetts Department of Social Service. She began working as a protective social worker and then worked at the Family Life Center and Project SAFE, specializing in helping families troubled by substance abuse and domestic violence. Ms. Houtte has a M.S. in education from Northeastern University.

Science shows that a child’s early experiences can impact his or her brain development—for better or worse. Children who have experienced maltreatment and trauma need quick intervention to help them overcome any negative outcomes to their development. This is especially pertinent for children entering state custody whose family situation has been disrupted due to child abuse and neglect. In recognition of this, the Department for Children and Families’ (DCF) Family Service Division District Office in St. Johnsbury has implemented a new, child-focused approach to serving infants and toddlers who come into state custody, called The Safe Babies Court Teams Project.

The Safe Babies Model

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event in which an individual feels emotionally overwhelmed and unable to cope, and may feel threatened to the point of fearing injury or death. Children who experience trauma may be more likely to experience delays in their development, as well as physical health problems down in the road. These negative consequences can be made worse if the child comes into state custody and does not get frequent family time, developmental assessment and needed services, or is moved from home to home and is therefore unable to form a stable, trusting relationship with a nurturing caregiver.

In addition, parents affected by trauma, substance abuse, domestic violence, a lack of parenting skills, and mental health concerns need to be offered help right away so they can work towards being reunited with their children. 

In response to these concerns, ZERO TO THREE (ZTT)—a national nonprofit that provides parents, professionals, and policymakers with the knowledge to nurture early development—developed the Safe Babies Court Teams Project, an initiative that aims to:

  1. Increase awareness among those who work with maltreated infants and toddlers about the negative impact of abuse and neglect on very young children; and,
  2. Change local systems to improve outcomes and prevent future court involvement in the lives of very young children.

Specifically, Safe Babies Court Teams focus on:

  •  Understanding each child’s individual needs  

Children are assigned to a pediatrician's office where the doctor and other caregivers know the child and family and understands what their individual needs are. In addition, all children going through the system receive screenings for developmental delays.

  • Minimizing changes in homes & caregivers

Because it’s so important for children’s healthy brain development that they form trusting relationships with consistent adults in their lives, changing homes and caregivers is very difficult for children and can be disruptive to their learning. To minimize changes in placement, the teams reach out to extended family members before removing them from their parents’ care and work to quickly identify other caregivers who would be willing to become the child’s permanent family if they can’t be reunified with their parents.

  • Ensuring access to quality early learning experiences

Each Safe Babies Team has developed partnerships with local Early Head Start programs and child care providers. In every community, early childhood educators are encouraged to attend training offered by the local team.

  • Finding opportunities for frequent family time

In order for children to develop and keep strong, trusting relationships with their parents, they need to spend time with them frequently and regularly. The Safe Babies Teams increase the time children and parents spend together by expanding the opportunities they can be together (for instance, at doctor’s appointments), the locations in which they can meet, and the quality of the experience through support from trained visit coaches.

Safe Babies Court Teams in Caledonia County

With the help of ZTT, the DCF Family Services Division District Office in St. Johnsbury partnered with Easter Seals of Vermont, the Caledonia Superior Court – Family Division, the Vermont Court Improvement Project, Children’s Integrated Services, and other community providers in the county to implement the Safe Babies Court Teams approach.

There are currently five families being served by multidisciplinary teams in Caledonia County. The teams are individualized to the family they serve and coordinated by a case manager who is  responsible for coordinating services and support to the family, creating the team, and bringing the team and family together ahead of scheduled court hearings. At these meetings, teams review the family’s progress in treatment and services, safety, well-being, and goals for being able to care for their children permanently.

A multidisciplinary Advisory Board made up of community providers provides teams with practice and implementation expertise and it addresses any gaps in community services. 

ZTT is currently helping a second project get off the ground in Windsor County. These are the only two counties in Vermont so far to implement this approach.

While it’s never “too late” for children who have experienced trauma to overcome any negative effects on their development, responding to their needs quickly is the most efficient and compassionate way to remedy the situation. The introduction of the Safe Babies model in Vermont is a positive step toward giving our infants and toddlers the best start possible.

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