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June 3rd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona has begun a program aimed at getting the youngest children in foster care and their parents the help they need to reunite or, if that isn’t possible, quicker adoption out of care.  Read about it here (Arizona Republic, 5/27/12).

That is in fact the aim of the Cradle to Crayons program that’s modeled on one at Tulane University, despite the article’s headline and disconcertingly misandric first sentence.  Once you get past those, the article makes sense.  Here’s its first sentence:

The four children whom Amy Sather and her husband adopted last November spent three years in foster care before finding a permanent home with her.

It’s the Case of the Disappearing Dad.  I hope the writer finds him soon.

But beyond that, it appears that Maricopa County is finally trying what I and many others have been arguing for for a long time – getting parents and their abused and neglected children the help they need early in the child’s life.  The new program, Cradles to Crayons is meant for children three years old and under.  It seeks to identify those who have been abused or neglected by their parents as early as possible and focus attention on improving the adults’ parenting skills.

The idea behind Cradle to Crayons — patterned after a small, intensive program at Tulane University in New Orleans — is to provide therapy, “coached” parent-child visits and other services sooner and more frequently for children and their parents so that judges, Child Protective Services case managers, attorneys and treatment providers can make better-informed decisions about their future as a family.

Parents of hundreds of the youngest foster kids already make more frequent appearances before three juvenile-court judges who specialize in these cases. Once it’s fully funded later this year, the program will consolidate an array of programs at a new child-welfare center to help families in their efforts to overcome the issues that broke them apart.

“We are trying to repair any types of hurt that the parent went through to put them in a position where they can safely parent their children,” said Julie Larrieu, associate director of the Tulane Infant Team and a professor of clinical psychology and pediatrics at the university’s School of Medicine. “But there also needs to be a realistic time frame.”

Cradles to Crayons is not an arm of Child Protective Services.  It’s function is to provide the help parents need to become better caregivers to their children, to assess their commitment and progress and report to judges, caseworkers, lawyers, etc.  Importantly, the process is not meant to be long-term.  If the experts at Cradles to Crayons report favorably on the parents’ progress and capabilities, then reunification becomes likely.  If they don’t, the road to termination of parental rights and adoption is short.

That’s because the youngest children are at greater risk for developing a range of personality problems from abuse or neglect, so if the parents can’t give them the love and care they need, the county wants to find someone who can.

Babies and small children are the most vulnerable to abuse and neglect, and they make up more than half of all children in 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 such 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 parenting skills.

The Tulane program has been in existence since 1984.  As such, it has a track record of reducing the rate of future child abuse and neglect.  It does not necessarily reduce the time a child may spend in foster care or increase the number of children returning to their parents.  That’s because the program demands improvement on the part of parents.

Tulane’s program has been shown to reduce future child maltreatment. Parenting skills improve, Larrieu said, even among parents who lose their children…

While one of the goals is to get babies and small children through the foster-care system more quickly, results of Tulane’s Infant Team, which began in 1984, show no reduction in the length of time in care as a result of the program.

The Tulane program resulted in fewer children returning to the system, but fewer children went home to their birth families. Larrieu said that’s partly because parents were expected to make “clinically significant progress,” not just show up.

Part of the program is the education of judges.  Currently, there are three Maricopa County judges who have received the special training in early childhood development and will handle only cases involving children three years old or younger.  That number will expand to eight as the program progresses.

There’s a potential problem of course.  The program has conflicting goals; one is to help parents be better at caring for their children.  That part I applaud.  The second is to get the children through the foster system and into adoption as soon as possible.  That can be a good thing, or not.  We all know which is likely to be less of a drain on state revenues.  Parental counselling, therapy and education are long, expensive processes.  It’ll be very tempting for judges to cut costs by hustling children into the adoption process as quickly as they can justify.  If that happens, it’ll just speed up the process of family breakup.

And then there’s the question of fathers.  As we know, child welfare agencies routinely ignore fathers when they decide to take children from single mothers.  Can the dad be an acceptable alternative to mother’s care?  CPS isn’t interested in the answer to that question.  As the Urban Institute study in 2006 revealed, although they know the identity of the father in 88% of cases, in fewer than half of those is he even contacted to see if he wants to care for his child.  Will that change in the Cradles to Crayons program?  I guess we’ll see.

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