Forrest County Youth Court has been approved for a grant of $75,000 to improve services for infants and toddlers. Rankin County was also a recipient.
The two counties were among eight sites nationally selected to participate in the Zero to Three Infant-Toddler Court Program’s Safe Babies Court Team approach. Both counties already have a Safe Babies Court Team. The grant will allow the programs to hire additional staff and expand services.
Forrest County Youth Court Judge Michael McPhail started the Forrest County Safe Babies Program in November 2005. The model program was among the first four sites in the nation. Rankin County Court Judge Thomas Broome began a Safe Babies Court Team in July 2015.
The Safe Babies approach targets infants and toddlers who enter the courts as a result of abuse and neglect, and who are headed for the foster care system. The Safe Babies program provides intense early intervention and prevention. The approach is intended to improve children’s chances for optimal development and healthy attachment, and to reduce the likelihood that they will return to court in the future.
The grants are expected to expand prevention efforts in families of infants and toddlers at risk of involvement in the child welfare system. Intervention strategies may include mental health prevention and treatment, substance use disorder prevention and treatment, and parent skills training.
“It is clearly the best practice for children and families in that it focuses on children between birth and 3 years, which we know from science is the most active development period of a child’s life,” resident Jurist John N. Hudson said. “It brings together all disciplines to do whatever is necessary to get that family stabilized.”
Judge McPhail hopes to see the program expand in the future to other youth courts.
“I would love to see Mississippi be the first state that totally embraces the Safe Babies Court Team model and every court implement it,” McPhail said.
The additional grant funds will allow Rankin County to expand to serve 20 families at a time.
The $75,000 a year grant will allow Forrest County to hire a full time community project coordinator or expand other aspects of the program. Judge McPhail, who will retire from the bench Dec. 31, said the new judge will hire the community project coordinator.
Two years of $75,000 are guaranteed, with a third year at the same funding level likely, Judge McPhail said. The program is scheduled to conclude in September 2021.
The grant comes with technical assistance. “Built into it is a huge amount of training and technical assistance. That’s a huge benefit,” McPhail said.
The grants to Forrest and Rankin counties are part of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. The money comes through the nonprofit ZERO TO THREE, a program that focuses on children during their early formative years.
In announcing the grants on Oct. 17, the ZERO TO THREE program said that evaluations of the Safe Babies Court Team approach showed that children:
• reached permanency sooner; 83.7 percent of children with closed cases reached permanency in 12 months, double that of the national standard of 40.5 percent established by the Children's Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services.
• found permanency with a family member; nearly two-thirds of children supported by Safe Babies Court Teams found permanent homes with members of their families, compared to just one-third of babies and toddlers in general population foster care.
• experienced fewer out-of-home foster care placements; 94.2 percent of children in care for less than 12 months had two or fewer placements, compared to the median of 85.6 percent.
• received access to support services; 90 percent of children identified in need of a service received their first appointment, over half within 30 days of referral.
ZERO TO THREE will lead the initiative in partnership with the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and RTI International. Ten demonstration sites will participate in the initiative and its evaluation over the three-year project period. Forrest and Rankin counties are among the eight sites for the first year. Other sites are three Florida counties and one site each in Connecticut, Iowa and Washington.