‘Baby Courts’ Considered to Heal Traumatized Infants

By MARGIE MENZEL, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA, Edited and Reprinted with permission

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 25, 2014 – An expert on childhood trauma urged members of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet on Thursday to promote a “baby court” model in which judges, lawyers and caseworkers put the needs of traumatized infants and toddlers before any other considerations.

Mimi Graham, of Florida State University’s Center for Prevention & Early Intervention Policy, told cabinet members that babies in troubled families can experience trauma that follows them the rest of their lives.

“What happens to young children does not go away,” Graham said. “It’s the pipeline to (the Department of Juvenile Justice) and the Department of Corrections. It leads to mental-health problems and so many societal problems — and we have reams of research that shows this connection.”

The baby court project is funded in part by HRSA’s Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems (ECCS) initiative, a collaborating partner of the Florida MIECHV program.

Early childhood trauma can lead to physical and mental health problems, crime, addiction and academic woes, Graham said, but baby courts can alter that trajectory.

The Children and Youth Cabinet, which includes the heads of all state agencies that deal with children, observed a baby court Wednesday in Pensacola.

“As we saw yesterday, all those families had substance-abuse issues,” Graham told the cabinet members. “They also all had underlying trauma. And we know unless we heal the trauma, they continue to struggle with these adversities throughout the lifetime.”

Infants under a year old make up nearly 20 percent of children in the child-welfare system; children under age 5 make up 54 percent.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 90 percent of children coming into the child-welfare system have been exposed to trauma — abuse or neglect, domestic violence, the loss of a parent to death or incarceration, or someone in the home with mental-health or substance-abuse problems. The number of adverse childhood experiences was almost double for children in poverty.

The cabinet members watching Graham’s presentation saw a video of a baby who endured two minutes of her mother watching expressionless. The infant soon showed clear signs of distress, which continued until her mother stopped the experiment to smile, speak lovingly and hold out her arms. But if the parent never gives those assurances, Graham said, the child’s emotional and intellectual development will be permanently affected.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman, who co-founded the Miami Child Well Being Court, said an understanding of child development is critical to breaking the cycle of dysfunction from one generation to the next.