From Child Welfare to Child Well-Being

October 1, 2019  • Myra Jones-Taylor

Instead of leaving the youngest children in foster care, a new program takes a whole-family approach and provides parents with the skills they need to be successful, confident nurturers—and bring their babies home.

The day Donaria was born was her mother’s first day of sobriety. Pauline, her mother, thought she was going to lose her daughter, who was born on the spectrum for fetal alcohol disorders, that first day. As she sat in the hospital, Pauline said to herself, “I’m going to do everything it takes to keep her.”

In 2017, more than one in six infants were affected by prenatal alcohol or illicit drug exposure. As a result, infants and toddlers are more likely than older children to be placed in foster care, and during a time when their brains are growing faster than at any later point in life. Donaria is one of those young children. Luckily for her and Pauline, the Safe Babies Court Team in Pulaski County, Arkansas, guided their fostercare journey.

Developed by Zero To Three, an Ascend Network Partner based in Washington, DC, that advocates on behalf of better outcomes for babies and their families, the Safe Babies Court Team approach doesn’t just work within the child-welfare system. It sets out to transform every community it works in. Court teams embrace babies and families, like Donaria and Pauline, and give them the support and services they need to promote healthy child development. The support allows parents to address their own adverse childhood experiences so they can prevent their children from experiencing some of the same adversity.

That notion is a foundational element of the premise of the two-generation, or whole family, approach advanced by Ascend at the Aspen Institute, where I am an Ascend Fellow and Zero To Three is an Ascend Network member. We are part of a national movement that focuses on building well-being for both children and the adults in their lives. A guiding principle of the two-generation approach is a commitment to learning from families’ expertise and building on their strengths. Transforming child welfare requires more than simply increasing the availability of a few services. It means a change in understanding what is at stake in the developing brain of a young child experiencing adversity or trauma.

The Safe Babies Court Team goal is to transform “child welfare” into the practice of “child well-being.” The program connects babies and their families with the support and services they need to promote healthy child development, while at the same time ensuring children and families exit the foster-care system as quickly as possible and have a safe, nurturing permanent home.

According to the State of Babies Yearbook: 2019, Arkansas is in the bottom tier of states for babies’ well-being. In response, the Arkansas Department of Human Services created a bold action plan, including a Safe Babies Court Team pilot program. Arkansas recognized the need to do better for its babies and has taken steps to improve outcomes for infants, toddlers, and their families.

Since 2009, the Pulaski County court team site has not seen a recurrence of maltreatment: not one baby has reentered the county’s child-welfare system. A recent evaluation of the approach found that across the country’s sites, maltreatment recurrence over 12 months was less than 1 percent. Nationally, the rate of recurrence is far higher. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, recurrence of maltreatment averages 9.1 percent over the same 12 months.

The court team approach is successful in large part because it gets babies and families the support and services they need earlier and faster than families involved in the traditional child-welfare system. Every court team member works quickly because they know that babies undergo astonishing growth in their bodies and brains. We see children placed in permanent homes at a rate of 83.7 percent—three times faster than infants and toddlers in the general foster-care population. Almost twothirds of them find permanent homes with members of their own families. These numbers are significantly better than the national standard of 40.5 percent.

Pauline and her baby are living examples of why a new approach to child welfare matters. Pauline is a strong, courageous, and motivated parent. She developed a solid relationship with her case manager and the Safe Babies team to make significant and lasting changes that affected her entire family. By actively participating in substance-use disorder treatment, mental health therapy, and enhanced life-skills development, Pauline carved out a path for housing and employment stability and took control of her journey toward sobriety. Donaria is now thriving under her confident parenting.

When parents do well, their babies can get the strong start in life that they deserve. The Safe Babies Court Team approach has an extraordinarily positive impact on participating families and their babies. At a time when the narrative around child welfare often focuses on the failures of a broken system, court team families show that change is possible. Until the nation meets families where they are and builds on their strengths, the child welfare system will not change.