Safe Babies Program in Northern Windsor & Orange
By Ellen Taetzsch
Every six minutes a baby or toddler is removed from their parents’ house due to alleged abuse or neglect in the United States (Melmed, 2017).
In Vermont the rates of children under age nine in protective custody has increased. In 2012, 6.4 per 1,000 children were in custody while in 2015 that number had increased to 12.4. Those numbers are even greater for children under the age of three. In 2012, 8.1 children per 1,000 were in protective custody while in 2015 it was 14.9 (HAVYC&F, 2017).
Children need safe, stable, and supportive environments when they are young to foster healthy brain development. When children are removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, proper development could be hindered if quick interventions do not occur.
The relationships and experiences that these babies have during the first few years of life are the foundation for social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic growth. As children are put in protective custody, these healthy relationships can be strained.
This is where the Safe Babies Court Team Approach comes in.
Safe Babies Court Team (SBCT) approach
Children eligible to participate in the Safe Babies program have experienced toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when, for a prolonged period, one feels overwhelmed, unable to cope, or even fears injury or death. This type of stress has many long term impacts such as increased rates of heart disease and cancer, depression, and illicit drug use (Aces in Action). This is why it is so important to mitigate the impact of the stressors these children are experiencing by creating stable relationships and assessing developmental progress.
Parents of these children are also likely to have experienced toxic stress, abuse, substance use, domestic violence, or perhaps mental illness in their lives. Therefore, parents also need to address their own challenges and gain support in parenting skills. The faster that parents are able to work through these challenges, the sooner reunification with their child can begin.
Zero To Three, a national nonprofit, developed the Safe Babies Court Team Project in response to this issue. To help coordinate this program, the Vermont Department of Children and Families contracts with Easter Seals Vermont.
In Vermont, this project is currently being piloted in two places: Caledonia and Windsor counties. Each county gained support from the court system, as they are a key partner in this effort.
In these two communities, a multidisciplinary team of community providers, unique to each family, comes together to support families. Some players may include Parent Child Centers, Easter Seals, Economic Services, housing services, and the Department of Children and Families; all coordinated by a case worker.
The Safe Babies Court Team Approach focuses on the following:
Understanding each child’s needs
Children are assigned a primary care home where each child is examined and given targeted care. Children also receive a developmental screening to assess what other supports the child may need, as well as mental health services (ZERO TO THREE).
Minimizing changes in homes and caregivers
Because it is so important for children to have stable environments, and to create trusting relationships in order to encourage healthy brain development, efforts are made right away to reach out to relatives of the child to become the caregiver while the biological parents are unable to. If a relative is not an option, then the team will look for foster parents that are willing to become the permanent guardian in the event that the birth parents aren’t able to care for the child (ZERO TO THREE).
Ensuring access to high quality Out-of-Home Care
Children are offered comprehensive services as outlined above. Partnerships are also created with local child care providers to ensure that children are able to have high quality experiences that encourage growth and development. Child care providers are also able to attend local Safe Babies court trainings.
Encouraging frequent family time
The relationship between a child and their parent is very important both for the child, providing continuity, but also to the parent in regaining custody of their child. There is research that shows the frequency of parent-child visits and the length of time for the child to reach permanency are related. Thus maintaining regular visits is critical (ZERO TO THREE).
The goal of this program is to reunite the child with the birth parents if at all possible. This means that attending to the needs of the birth parents is a key component so that they will be given all the opportunities to rebuild a safe relationship with their child. Parents are offered mental health services, parenting education, and other opportunities based on their needs. The goal is to treat birth parents with respect and to build genuine, open, and honest relationships with them. (ZERO TO THREE)
Big Picture Focus
In addition to the teams supporting individual families, a group of community stakeholders have gathered and are committed to changing the system of how young children and their parents are treated in courts (ZERO TO THREE).
This program is still fairly new in Vermont and there is not enough data yet to show how it is working here, but nationally there has been some very heartening outcomes including:
- Children in the Safe Babies Court Teams exiting foster care significantly faster than the comparison group, which lead to an average of $7,300 per child cost savings (E. Michael Foster).
- For the 186 infant and toddler cases examined, 99.05% were protected from further maltreatment while under court supervision, 95% achieved permanency, and 97% received needed services to meet identified needs, particularly for routine pediatric care and developmental screenings and services (James Bell Associates).
- A study showing that the Safe Babies Court Teams cases access more services than the comparison group. Children were significantly more likely to receive a developmental screening (92% v. 25%), health care visit (94% v. 76%), and dental visit (29% v. 18%) (E. Michael Foster).
The Northern Windsor and Orange County Building Bright Futures Council sees the promise in this program and will continue to support the program and learn more about successes and challenges with hopes to explore feasibility and interest in the expansion of the program into Orange County.
As the number of children being placed into protective custody continues to increase, so does the strain on our court system, human services, and families. Vermont will need to continue to look for innovative ways to address this problem. The Safe Babies Court Team model is one example the state of Vermont is exploring to help collectively build strong families and reduce the burden on the court system, and we should continue to learn more about its impact on children and families.
Northern Windsor, Orange & Springfield Regional Coordinator
Building Bright Futures
Aces in Action. n.d. http://www.acesinaction4u.org/.
Building Bright Futures. 2017. “How Are Vermont’s Young Children & Families? (HAVYC&F) report.
Foster, E. Michael. McCombs-Thornton, Kimberly L. “Key Findings from: Investing in Our Most Vulnerable: A Cost Analysis of ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Court Teams Project.” 2012.
James Bell Associates. “Evaluation of the Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers: Final Report.” 2009.
Melmed, Matthew E. “How to Use a Guide to Implementing the Safe Babies Court Team Approach.” 2017.
ZERO TO THREE. The Core Components of the Safe Babies Court Team Approach. 29 November 2016. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1655-the-core-components-of-the-safe-babies-court-team-approach.