Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Five Ways to Speak for Babies in Court

One in four children coming into foster care is a baby under age one. Here are five ways you can be sure their voice is heard in court.

The best opportunity we have to build strong children is during their first three years of life when their brains are developing at rapid rates and they are soaking up their surroundings. Our early life experiences shape the way we learn and grow throughout our lives. CASAs who serve babies have a tremendous opportunity to help get these extremely vulnerable infants on the right track-- saving their childhoods as well as shaping future generations to come. Knowing what to look for and how to be a voice for these truly voiceless young children is critical now more than ever. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Get the lay of their land. Frequent home visitation is the only way to get a good picture of what Baby’s daily life looks like. To understand Baby’s life situation, it’s important to visit any setting where Baby spends a lot of time, including childcare centers or in-home providers. Some things to look for: Is Baby on a schedule? Routine and structure are critical to helping very young children feel safe and overcome early adverse life experiences. Who lives in the home and have you met them? Who are the important people in Baby’s life? How is Baby relating to his or her adult caregivers? Does Baby sleep too much? Too little? Does Baby experience significant regulation problems such as reflux, constipation, or difficulty gaining weight? You can’t get the full picture if you don’t know what all the pieces look like. Any issues you uncover during this step may point to the fact that Baby is having a hard time and needs some help. Science tells us babies as young as six months experience grief, loss, anxiety, and depression. These problems are best mitigated by routine and consistent, nurturing care from a stable and loving adult.

Case Study: Sebastian* was seven-months-old when his parents were arrested for drug-trafficking and child endangering charges. He was immediately placed in foster care and a CASA was assigned to advocate for him. His CASA made four foster home visits over the next two months. Each time she visited, Sebastian was in his crib no matter what time of day his CASA arrived. His foster mother only vaguely answered her questions about his daily life, indicating she was not consistently engaged with him and did not have a schedule for him. In addition, the CASA did not observe the foster mother physically interacting with Sebastian at all. Without these twice-monthly home visits, his CASA would likely not have noticed these red flags. Evidence shows that babies need a routine that will help them begin to feel competent by knowing what to expect each day. Likewise, they need the freedom to explore their surroundings and build both big and little muscles by crawling, etc.

2.Dig Deeper. Now that you have a sense of Baby’s life, it’s time to dig deeper. Where are Baby’s medical records and has Baby been to the doctor? Babies in foster care may move from home to home and their records and medical history often do not move with them. Are Baby’s immunizations up to date? Babies get multiple doses of six routine childhood vaccines that protect against eight diseases such as polio. They receive nearly twenty doses of these six vaccines in the first year of life. Are there any outstanding medical issues or previous concerns noted by a pediatrician?

Does Baby need a referral for a full developmental assessment? Per CAPTA and federal law, all children under age three who are victims of substantiated physical abuse allegations are automatically eligible for full developmental assessments. Take advantage of this assessment and don’t assume you know from your own experience whether Baby is delayed or not. Leave it to the experts.

Case Study: Sebastian’s CASA requested a full developmental assessment that found him to be functioning at the chronological age of five months. When his foster mother was unable to ensure his attendance at physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions, his CASA advocated that Sebastian be moved to a foster home better able to meet his needs. Even recognizing the trauma incurred when a baby moves, the CASA believed it was worse to leave Sebastian in a home where he was clearly not thriving. Sebastian was subsequently moved to a loving home with devoted foster parents. He made huge strides in catching up thanks to this therapies combined with the loving, consistent, routine care he received.

3.Take pictures. CASAs are in a unique position to be the historian of a baby’s early years. The simple act of snapping occasional photos has the potential to make significant impacts in a variety of ways. With the agreement of all attorneys, photos of Baby can be attached to court reports and shared with the judge, encouraging all parties to focus on the reality that the decisions they make will shape Baby’s life forever. Sharing photos with biological parents shows you respect their role in their child’s life. That acknowledgement may strengthen your relationship with parents and lead to better communication between you. When the case closes, these photos should be given to the person who has custody of Baby. This is a treasured gift for parents who may have missed the smiles from various stages of development. The photos can also be given to a young child’s mental health therapist and used as a tool to help the child make sense of his/her history and help the child prepare for a transition to a permanent home.

Case Study: Sebastian’s CASA took photos of him regularly and was astonished at the healthy change in Sebastian from the time she first met him. At nine months, Sebastian’s empty eyes were haunting while he lay in his crib. By fourteen months, a photo revealed a chubby young toddler with bright eyes, a wide smile, and arms waving in the air. Sebastian’s CASA attached his picture to her court report and the judge put it right inside the flap of his legal file. It became the first thing he saw when he pulled the case file. The CASA also mailed copies of the photos to Sebastian’s biological parents, including a letter introducing herself as Sebastian’s court advocate.

4.Keep time. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was enacted to prevent foster kids from languishing in the system and moving them toward adoption. ASFA requires efforts to be made toward permanency for children within two years of initial foster care placement. Despite ASFA, babies under three months take, on average, 39 months before permanency is achieved when they are placed with the initial goal of adoption. In Hamilton County, Ohio, juvenile court dependency review hearings begin with the following statement read aloud: "This is case number 00-0000 regarding Jane Smith who is 18 months old. Jane has been in agency care for 162 days. The court and parties have 203 days to reunify the family or secure another permanent placement for the child. The attorneys and parties have a duty to assist Jane in achieving that permanent home." Staying focused on the legal clock can help prevent babies from languishing in the system unnecessarily.

Case Study:
Sebastian remained in his loving foster home from the time he was nine months old until he was two. Because of his parents’ criminal trials and subsequent prison terms, no reunification efforts were made. His CASA’s diligence in ensuring potential extended family members were investigated in a timely manner helped keep the case moving. Ultimately, no family members were found to be able, willing, and appropriate to care for Sebastian.

Sebastian’s foster parents were not interested in adopting him and he was ultimately transitioned to an adoptive home with careful planning. His secure attachment to his foster parents enabled him to better cope with the gradual move to his new family. It is better for babies like Sebastian to make and break an attachment than to not be given the opportunity to experience a healthy attachment at all. When Sebastian’s adoption finalized, his CASA gave his new parents a photo album containing the photos she had taken throughout the case.

5.Know your facts. While it is important to know all of the facts about Baby’s case, it is equally important to know what the trajectory of life looks like for foster babies. More than half of the young children placed in foster care have developmental delays. Young children are more likely to be abused and neglected in foster care than older children and to stay in foster care longer. Up to 80% have chronic health conditions. Once you know these facts, you can easily share them with others and be a voice not just for one child but for all young children in foster care. Start having the conversations about how to address these issues case by case and systemically. Build your own team of passionate people who want to help babies beat these odds. Visit www.zerotothree.org for more information about initiatives like Court Teams for Maltreated Infants that are helping very vulnerable young children.

When you intervene successfully on behalf of a baby, you give him or her a second chance at a happy childhood as well as help change the course of his or her entire future, which has ripple effects for generations to come. It is an exciting time to be helping babies in foster care because we know so much about what babies need to thrive.

The above information was taken from Invisible Kids: Marcus Fiesel’s Legacy. Additional case studies and more in-depth information on advocating for very young children in foster care can be found in this book by child advocate and author Holly Schlaack. Invisible Kids is available in print or ebook editions. Discounts available for bulk orders. For more information, please visit www.invisiblekidsthebook.com.

*Sebastian's name has been changed to protect his identity.

“It is easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass.