Maricopa Superior Court Pioneers New Dependency Plan for Young Children in Phoenix

May 27, 2012

Adapted from an article by Mary K. Reinhart, Arizona Republic
The Superior Court in Maricopa County Arizona (Phoenix) has recently attacked in earnest the problems associated with young children remaining in foster care for extended periods of time by developing a new juvenile court program called Cradle to Crayons patterned after research done by Tulane University in New Orleans.  The program provides therapy, “coached” parent-child visits and other services sooner and more frequently for young children and their parents so that judges, Child Protective Services case managers, attorneys and treatment providers can make better decisions about future family placements.

The program consolidates an array of programs at a new child-welfare center to help families in their efforts to overcome issues that broke them apart.  Arizona law allows children younger than 3 years old to be free for adoption within 6 months of coming into foster care.  But the state can’t terminate parental rights until it shows parents had an opportunity to fix the problems that brought their children into state custody.

The court’s child-welfare center will be a central location for visitation, therapy, substance-abuse treatment and early education.  The three-building complex, scheduled to open this summer, is housed in a former juvenile facility down the street from the Durango Juvenile Court Center in Phoenix.

Maricopa County Presiding Court Juvenile Judge Edd Ballinger, a chief proponent of the program, said young children and their families need more attention from judges to reduce bureaucratic delays and enforce treatment, visitation and other court orders.  Tulane’s program has been shown to reduce future child maltreatment. Parenting skills improve even among parents who lose their children.  “We haven’t been doing a good enough job.  We have a problem that’s getting much worse,” Ballinger said.  “Part of this is about dealing with the next child she has.”

Under the Cradle to Crayons program, designated judges hear the cases of children younger than 3 years old and their siblings.  The judges complete special training in early-childhood development and agree to remain on the juvenile bench beyond the typical two-year rotation.

The Maricopa County Board is funding the program augmented by federal grants.  Arizona State University is partnering with the court to provide interns to work with full-time child-welfare center staff.

One of the goals of the program is to get babies and small children through the foster-care system more quickly while providing better education and help to the birth parents in hopes of keeping their children.  Babies and small children are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect, and they make up more than half of all children in Arizona foster care.  They’re also less likely to be reunited with their parents than older kids and more likely to return to foster care after being sent home.

The trauma of child abuse and neglect, and being moved from place to place at a young age, jeopardizes children’s ability to form a healthy attachment to a single caregiver.  That can damage normal growth and development and, down the road, the child’s own parental skills.