Featured Speaker:
Dr. Kimberly A. Mann, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
Deputy Director, DCFS- Office of Child Well-Being

The Early Childhood Court Team (ECCT), also known as Safe Babies Court, is a judicially led, multi-disciplinary approach to serving families in the child welfare system based oninclusion of all parties involved with a family’s case. The ECCT brings everyone involved with the family, including clinicians and legal professionals that are serving the parents and children impacted by trauma, to address this complex situation. The goal of the ECCT is to expedite resolutions for child welfare cases, as the longer a child is involved in the system, the more opportunity there is for their development to be adversely impacted. The motto of the ECCT is “We coordinate because babies can’t wait.”

In anticipation of the upcoming annual meeting, Dr. Mann answered questions about the ECCT and Safe Babies Court. Read her comments below:

Q: What is the Early Childhood Court Team (ECCT) experience like?

Dr. Mann: It has two main areas of focus. First, the ECCT has a shared interest to tackle the broad array of needs that a family in the child welfare system is struggling with and to approach the needs holistically. This elevates the family’s experiences and inspires more curiosity about their situation rather than judgment. It makes everyone on the team wonder what other hardships are affecting that parent.

Secondly, parents aren’t treated as an object going through a hostile system. Hopefully this increases the feelings of safety and respect so parents open up and will share more details about their family’s experiences.  Ultimately, we need to enhance motivation to give families the best opportunity to make changes.

Q: In what other ways is this different from traditional court?

Dr. Mann: A significant area of emphasis is the need to use court testimonies to convey pieces of the family’s story. In this model you’re not always having a traditional experience of testifying, it is conversational. This greater level of collaboration helps keep a parent engaged with interventions.

One of the core features of the baby court model is the monthly Child and Family Team meeting. These team meetings bring 8 to 10 participants, such as caseworkers, attorneys, community support and clinicians, to a single table. We are puzzling together and problem-solving together. It eliminates isolated decision-making made by the parent. Different parties can hear the same information and it will inform them of how to best help the parent (e.g., drug and trauma counselors) and coordinate their individual care strategies. Even the attorneys have commented that they walk away more informed so they can better help their client.

Q: Part of the mission of Safe Babies Court is to increase awareness about the impact of trauma on children. How does the ECCT do that? 

Dr. Mann: By gathering the entire court team into one room each month, it increases their involvement so they can see first-hand the parent’s struggles instead of only seeing them every four months at a court appearance. In addition, this format deals with not only the child’s trauma but addresses the parent’s as well. A mother can’t understand her child’s trauma if she doesn’t work through her own history, and members of the ECCTs are now better able to see how that can affect a family.

Q: Do you think Baby Court is impacting parenting and foster care?

Dr. Mann: Many people have an impression that foster care is a utopia of removing kids from their abusive parents and putting them into a heavenly home. They don’t understand that children who experience early life trauma have many needs including behavioral challenges. Having kids getting kicked out of daycare, needing early intervention services and special care makes it difficult for foster parents to persevere despite their best efforts and intentions. When that falls apart, you’ve got a child that needs safety and stability, moving from place to place because foster parents are not able to continue caring for them. Through the ECCTs, we can introduce other options, like emphasizing co-parenting so parents can see their child more often while in care with their foster family. Parents can attend doctor appointments and other milestones so the foster parent can see a birth parent who cares. I had one case where we actually had a foster parent and a birth parent planning the baby's birthday party together!

Sometimes the foster parents are relatives who have taken the child in. Being part of a team effort can help these related foster parents better understand and respond to the challenges, such as mental health, substance abuse, and domestic abuse.

Q: Along with other issues, like the time and coordination required, isn't a system that involves so many more people an expensive way to address the needs of one family?

Dr. Mann: Illinois has some of the worst outcomes in the U.S. for how long children remain in the welfare system, also known as “length of stay.” Currently, children are in the system for up to three years or more. If we can decrease that length of stay—we want it less than 2 years—the greatest benefit to the system is the cost saving. Beyond the fiscal cost benefit, there is a developmental cost benefit too. As the professionals experience the successes of positive outcomes we can see that it's worth the time and effort because we're seeing outcomes and seeing them quickly, humanely and with respect.

Q: What does the future look like for Baby Court?

Dr. Mann: This is still a new effort. We've been active for six months. We want to work more closely with Family Advocacy Centers and expand our community stakeholders. We are being intentional about what we’re trying to change because we’re trying to change everything. Ask me this again when we get to year three. That's when I expect the work we're doing now to really take hold. In the meantime, I'm encouraged when I hear on the first day of baby court training the team members who look at me and say "This is what we all signed up for!"

To RSVP to the 2018 Annual Meeting and hear Dr. Mann's full keynote speech, please contact Kelsey Miklos.