Coffee County was chosen as one of seven sites to participate in the state’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) pilot Safe Baby Courts program.

Safe Baby Court is a specialized court docket that was created to address the unique needs of infants. This program is for families who are involved with DCS and have court ordered services through the Juvenile Court system, explained Rebecca Bevans, director of training and program development in the DCS Office of Child Safety.

The court aims to combat the impact of child abuse, neglect and substance abuse on children and families and to support families and infants in need of forever homes. This can include connecting families with addiction services, connecting them to a local banker who can teach them about a checking account, connect them with job locating services to help find them stable income, connect them with a local mechanic to help fix a car so that the family will have reliable transportation to take care of the family’s needs, explained Bevans.

“Helping address the little things to support a family can turn out to have some of the strongest impacts on increased stability in the long run,” she added.

“This is a pilot program and funding allowed seven sites to be started initially. The seven were chosen based on judicial interest in the program,” Bevans said.

The other chosen sites are in Davidson, Grundy, Johnson, Knox, Madison and Stewart counties.

Bevans explained the frequency of court hearing and Child and Family Team Meetings is determined by the needs of the family. Typically they are held once a month but can be more frequent if the family has higher needs.

“Child abuse and neglect isn’t a one agency issue. It is a community issue and Safe Baby Court is a prime example where anyone can get involved to make a positive impact on a family struggling in their community,’’ said Bevans in a written statement.

In July 2017, state legislation was passed for the implementation of Safe Baby Courts, based in county Juvenile Courts, to focus on children ages 0 through 3, and placing special emphasis on infant mental health, trauma recognition through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and increasing community resources and involvement to support families.

Through Safe Baby Courts, Juvenile Court teams partner with DCS staff, foster parents and/or birth families, mental health providers and community partners to “wrap-around” a child and family at risk. Volunteers also are a needed component to assist the teams with things such as transportation, mentoring, etc. The program is for families with children 3 years old and under and who have pending cases in Juvenile Courts. Additionally, this model intentionally seeks foster parents who will work to build long-lasting and supportive relationships that extend beyond a child’s time in foster care and a family’s time in Safe Baby Court.

The primary goals for the new approach includes: the reduction in the number of children entering state custody; the reduction of repeat family involvement with child welfare; and quicker times to achieving permanency for children.

There also is improved DCS staff training - particularly focused on a better understanding of addiction and recovery and how parental substance abuse adversely impacts young children. The years 0 to 3 are critical times for brain development and establishing strong bonds through early connections to caregivers. Parents who abuse substances cannot develop healthy attachments with their children, which can induce toxic stress, impacting health and well-being for a lifetime.

With the full support and collaboration of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Tennessee – which has been battling an opioid epidemic – is the first state to implement this approach for children both in foster care and at risk of coming into foster care.

“The vision is to build lasting support in their own community,” Bevans said.

There currently are 7,900 children in foster care in Tennessee.

19 Days of Activism campaign

This informational release is part of the 19 Days of Activism Campaign, a multi-issue coalition of diverse organizations and partners to help create public awareness and support at the local, national and international level to educate the public about the plight of drug-endangered children and their families. The 19 Days of Activism campaign is led by the Child Advocacy Center in Nashville.