Making Family Court Better for Babies and Toddlers

By Abigail Kramer

A new pilot program in the Bronx aims to improve the experience of babies and toddlers in Family Court. With new resources and attention, program providers hope to move children aged 0-3 through the court process more quickly, and to identify services that will help babies and their families thrive.

Each year—both nationally and in New York City—more children aged 3 and younger enter the child welfare system than kids in any other age range. In fact, a baby is more likely to come under court supervision or enter foster care before age 1 than during any other year of life.
Once a baby is removed from his parent, the instability endemic to foster care can cause real harm. Cases may drag on for years while kids bounce from home to home, with no chance to form lasting attachments to caregivers. The cumulative chaos can disrupt brain development in ways that may do permanent damage.

In the past few years, at least two city organizations (The Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services in Manhattan and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx) have set up parent-child therapy programs for babies and toddlers involved in Family Court. 

Beginning in summer 2015, the Center for Court Innovation’s “Bronx Infant Court” project aims to help Family Court judges make better, faster decisions about babies’ cases. The project will start by serving children aged 3 and younger whose cases come on the docket of a particular Family Court judge. A newly hired, court-based "infant coordinator" will oversee these cases, conducting detailed clinical assessments of kids and their parents and referring them to services particularly tailored to the family's needs. 

Each year—both nationally and in New York City—more children aged 3 and younger enter the child welfare system than kids in any other age range.

Currently, court-ordered services often fail to address the particular problems that land families in court in the first place, says Susan Chinitz, a coordinator of the project and a former professor of clinical pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Kids and parents “may have very different needs,” Chinitz says. “Sometimes a mother is severely depressed and has low frustration tolerance, or it’s a young, cognitively impaired mother with no social supports. When you know all that information, you can identify services that are truly relevant.” 
The coordinator will convene monthly meetings involving community service providers, foster care agencies, attorneys and parents with young children in Family Court. They will discuss each infant and toddler, with the goal of agreeing on a plan for the family which can be presented to the Family Court judge. In turn, the judge has agreed to hear infants’ and toddlers’ cases monthly, rather than allowing the typical multi-month delays that can make child welfare cases drag on. 
Each month, the project will also offer training for court staff on topics like infant development, services for babies and strategies to foster parent-child attachment in the context of problems like substance abuse. (Attorneys receive continuing legal education credits for attending.) "Lawyers and judges are not trained in child development, certainly not in the most recent findings in infant mental health and attachment," Chinitz says. Yet, “they make very critical decisions affecting the lives of babies and young children every day.”
For now, the Bronx Infant Court has no public funding. The Bronx Family Court and the legal organizations representing parents and children (including the Legal Aid Society, 18B panel attorneys and The Bronx Defenders) are contributing staff time, as are attorneys for the Administration for Children’s Services. Project coordinators are working to raise more funding, and hope to develop the project into a model that can be replicated across the city's Family Court system. 
Historically, it has proven difficult to sustain improvements in the Family Court process without stable funding. Nearly two decades ago, the New York State court system launched a program called "Babies Can't Wait," designed—much like the Bronx Infant Court—to move babies through foster care more quickly, and to pay better attention to their developmental health. The project ran workshops for court staff and foster care workers, hired social workers to monitor babies’ court cases, and encouraged judges to prioritize babies’ existing attachments when making placement decisions. The initiative lost its funding in 2005, however, and the project withered. 
Organizers of the Bronx Infant Court project hope that it will bring permanent, positive changes to the practices of Family Court. “The primary focus is on teaching people to look at cases through an infant-focused lens,” says Liberty Aldrich, the director of domestic violence and Family Court programs at CCI. “It has to become a habit.”

Find more information about the Bronx Infant Court here