In October, a Duluth-area mom chose a bright red dress to wear to a family court hearing in northeastern Minnesota. Appearing confident and surrounded by her children, she faced Judge Robert Friday. It was a delicate time. The mother’s very young child was back home for a “trial period” after being taken into foster care, while social workers and the court monitored the safety of that reunification.
“True sobriety looks good on you,” the St. Louis County District Court judge told her that day. Acknowledging the recent past, he added: “I wasn’t easy on you at the last hearing.” But he admired her fortitude, and declared that the home stay would be extended — a step closer to a life free of court supervision within months.
“It’s crazy to see that kind of change in only 80 days,” a social worker murmured to a colleague after the mother and her children left the courtroom.
Judge Friday’s bench in the small town of Virginia is one of more than 100 sites across the nation relying on a “Safe Babies” approach to child welfare cases involving very young children. Infant-toddler court teams were developed by the Washington, D.C.-based ZERO TO THREE nonprofit, and focus on maintaining the vital early family bonds in CPS cases that involve parents’ substance use disorders and other family crises.
Courts supported by the nonprofit organization provide more intensive services for these youngest children. Cases are heard more frequently than in typical family courts, by one specially trained judge focused on medical and mental health needs. Families are also afforded more time together than typical early-stage child welfare cases, where visitation can be sporadic and heavily supervised.
A new peer-reviewed study on the approach will be published in the Children and Youth Services Review next year, part of what supporters describe as its growing evidence base. The new study compared Safe Babies courts to those not deploying its method. The researchers found that in six states, children were significantly more likely to “reach permanency” and be reunified with their families — and at a faster pace.
“It was exciting to see that replication of findings in terms of faster exits from foster care,” said co-author Jenifer Goldman Fraser, director of research and evaluation with ZERO TO THREE. Fraser said the study shows the effectiveness of a more personalized court that “elevates” the voice of parents in decision-making.
Previous research has been conducted since 2011, and supports similar findings that the vast majority of infants and toddlers in Safe Babies courts are reunited with biological parents or placed in permanent settings with kin, guardians or adoptive parents — far higher than the national average and most often within a year. A 2020 study by the American Institutes for Research found children left foster care four months sooner than children who went through standard court proceedings.
“This difference was statistically significant and practically meaningful, given that four months is a long time in the life of a child under the age of 3,” the authors wrote.
On Oct. 12, as an Imprint reporter observed, Judge Friday’s calendar continued at a rapid pace. The names and identities of court clients and their representatives are being kept confidential to protect their privacy.
The cases illustrated both the challenges and the successes of these families struggling to reunite after foster care separations. The most common reasons parents with young children end up in these civil family courts in St. Louis County are drug and alcohol use disorders, according to a 2021 legislative report.
As of 2021, there were 233 children ages 3 and younger in St. Louis County’s child welfare system. The community is mostly white, with almost one-quarter of the population living in poverty and opioid overdose deaths on the rise.
Next up on Judge Friday’s docket was a woman who came to the courtroom alone. She was less triumphant than the previous mom. She expressed difficulty parenting, but wanted to keep her young child home. The judge commended her for her self-awareness. Both agreed to continue the trial home stay, and see where they end up by year’s end.
After she left, a long pause ensued. The court bailiff searched for the next court client. No dice.
“She hasn’t really kept up with our scheduled conversations,” a family court lawyer told the judge. Asked for updates on the progress of her drug use, she added: “She was terminated from treatment.”
The silence continued until a video conference alert rang out in the courtroom. Making a virtual appearance, the judge admonished the mother for a lack of communication. They agreed to schedule an in-person court date in two months. After she hung up, Judge Friday sighed and rested his head in his hands.
Judges working with infant-toddler teams are advised to give parents the benefit of doubt, in ways more stricter family courts might not.
“The system in place now is so adversarial,” said Cecilia Casanueva, lead researcher of the study to be published in 2024. “People lose sight of the human beings behind each case.” And as a result, she added, “we traumatize babies and toddlers when they’re removed from their main caregiver.”
Under federal and state law, the goal for child welfare cases is family reunification. If that cannot take place, an alternative home must be found through a guardianship placement with a relative, or adoption.
Casanueva and other independent researchers found that in Safe Babies courtrooms, the most common “permanency outcome” was family reunification. That occurred in 44% of cases, compared to 26% in a national sample of similar child welfare cases created for the study. Additionally, children spent 166 days less, on average, in foster care.
The study — funded in part by a maternal and child health bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — was conducted by independent researchers at the Research Triangle Institute. It examined 183 children from six states, expanding on research conducted 10 years ago that involved 298 children in the Miami Child Well-Being Court.
Back in Virginia, Minnesota, court hearings were wrapping up as the sun that had shined brightly through the courtroom windows earlier in the day began to dim. The last family to appear included two parents and their two kids. Mom was visibly disgruntled.
“Your honor, she is frustrated with her once-per-week visits and her contact with dad is strained,” her lawyer said.
Every day, family courts have to make almost unfathomable judgements about where children found to have been abused and neglected should live, and with whom. The fraught nature of such decisions was fully evident in Judge Friday’s last case of the day. After a lengthy discussion about child support orders and jurisdiction, the judge tells the father and the two children that they don’t have to show up to court any longer. He granted them a permanent home together.
“Does that mean we get to stay with dad forever?” the older child asked the judge.
Friday smiled and noted, “that’s a mighty long time.”
Yet even with some closure in court that day, the weight of the future was evident. As the hearing drew to a close and the mother disappeared from sight, her youngest child raced after her shouting: “Momma!”