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What I learned from reporting on baby courts’ bids to change young lives

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

What I learned from reporting on baby courts’ bids to change young lives

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As a generalist freelancer, I write about whatever interests me, and in the past few years, I’ve found myself gravitating to health and crime stories, particularly those involving laws designed to punish “bad mothers.” Tennessee and Indiana are two states that have been much in the news for their strict punishments of pregnant women and new mothers, but the stories are everywhere.

I wrote an article about chemical endangerment prosecutions in Alabama for the New York Times Magazine, a cover story for The New Republic on an abortion law in Idaho, and several stories for an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship on the topic of pregnant women and the criminal justice system, including one about a woman in Ohio who was threatened with removal of her children because she was on an opiate maintenance program. I also wrote a story about a California woman whose baby had been removed from her care under suspicion of drug use, and a story about a pregnant Wisconsin woman who was sent to jail because she refused to agree to inpatient drug treatment.

When I spoke with families who were involved in one way or another in the child welfare system, they described the experience in many cases as worse than jail. There was a pervasive sense, among both the families and administrators, that the system is far from perfect. While many children as are kept safe, inevitably some are not. And other families suffer removals that in retrospect appear unnecessary.

Some child welfare activists suggested to me that many children in foster care on any given day could be safely in their own homes if the right kind of help was available to their families, while others working with at-risk children said that the rise in methamphetamine and opiate addiction has created a desperate situation calling for desperate measures — more removals.

Having grown weary of these gloomy stories, I started casting around for potential good news in the child welfare world. A woman named Nora McCarthy who runs a group called Rise (my fellowship project included a story about Rise for the ABC News-Univision site agreed to talk to me about “two-generation solutions” that treat the mother and baby as a unit, rather than individually. “[Criminalization] is so anti-child,” she said. “You don’t have to care about adults’ rights. You can just come out it from the child’s perspective. They don’t want their mom in jail.”

One of the flagship programs for the treat-the-family-as-a-whole philosophy, McCarthy told me, is the “baby court,” in which judges often assign child-parent psychotherapy and have more frequent hearings in order to better facilitate potential family reunification. Not a lot had been written about these courts outside of sites like AcesTooHigh.

As luck would have it, a leading figure in the baby court movement, the Hon. Cindy Lederman, who presides at the Child Well-Being Court in Miami-Dade County, Florida, was the keynote speaker of the 2015 National Fellowship week, so we were able to meet for lunch at the Biltmore in Los Angeles. Speaking with her, I realized I wanted to see her court in action, so I made plans to travel to Miami soon after.

In the course of reporting, I learned that some baby courts are part of the Zero to Three initiative; others are more in the Miami model; others are hybrids. I also learned that not everyone loves baby courts. Some lawyers believe that many parents get into a therapeutic court relationship without first giving a lawyer the chance to knock the charges out of court.

What I found most interesting in the course of researching this story was that before the baby courts there was very little focus on babies’ experience of trauma; now many judges are becoming aware of the brain science underlying their work.  

Here are a few tips to other reporters working on this topic:

  • Hang out in court. In some places, such as New York and Florida, family courts are open to the public, so you can sit there as long as you can stand it. (I found the Bronx Family Court to be among the most depressing places on earth, so I never lasted more than half a day at a time there.)
  • Sit in on groups off the record. In addition to attending Rise meetings, I visited a meeting of “Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies,” a Bronx program that helps women at risk of a child protective services intervention get their legal ducks in a row so that when their babies are born they have the best chance of staying out of foster care. I met women at these places who opened up to me in a way they might not have had I approached them cold in the courthouse.
  • Realize it’s not one national system. It took me a while to really let this sink in: A parent’s behavior might be cause for intervention in one town but not in the next town over, because the administration of child welfare is typically county-based. Also: “It’s hard to talk about the system as a whole,” Cris Beam, author of “To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care,” told me, “because the system is so connected to poverty, joblessness, and racism.”
  • Talk to trauma experts. I loved learning about ACE scores (a gauge of childhood trauma). The ACE score is not universally recognized (some psychologists told me the assessment is too subjective), but still, I found knowing my score to be helpful in thinking about how what happens to all of us as children affects our health and well-being later on. It stokes empathy. Now, sometimes out in the world when I encounter someone difficult, rather than leaping to judgment I find myself wondering about their ACE score.

Read Ada Calhoun’s fellowship stories:

“Judges are using brain science to help babies caught in the court system,” Quartz

How the power of storytelling can change lives in child welfare cases,” Fusion


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