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Bill would standardize early childhood courts

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Florida’s early childhood courts are doing such a good job protecting infants and toddlers from disintegrating families that lawmakers are being asked to take the program to the next level.

Sen. Lauren BookA bill that seeks to make 21 separate early childhood courts in Florida more uniform by putting them under the Office of State Courts Administrator, passed the Senate Children Families and Elder Affairs Committee late last month and  cleared the Appropriations Subcommittee on Civil and Criminal Justice March 6.

The measure, SB 90, is sponsored by Committee Chair Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat and noted children’s advocate. Book told Children Families and Elder Affairs Committee members that as of January 9, there were 13,175 abused or neglected children, ages 0-3, in dependency courts in Florida. And their age, Book said, makes them especially vulnerable to trauma.

“The purpose of an early childhood court program is to address the root cause of court involvement through specialized dockets, multi-disciplinary teams, evidence-based treatment and the use of a non-adversarial approach,” Book said. “Research proves that the first 1,000 days of life is the most critical time for rapid brain development…and conversely, the most vulnerable time for maltreatment.”

Also known as “baby courts,” early childhood courts are problem solving courts for parents who agree to address mental health, substance abuse, and other issues in hopes of eventually restoring their parental rights. Clinical teams funded mostly by local governments and area non-profits work with parents, young children, and judges to repair the problems that led to dependency court.

State and national studies suggest the approach is working. In 2016, children in Florida who participated in early childhood courts spent 112 fewer days in state care than children who were in regular dependency court, according to one study. Recidivism rates for early childhood court participants were also lower, studies show.

“I’ve been a judge for 30 years and I’ve never seen a single program that has more potential for changing the lives of this very vulnerable demographic,” said Senior Judge Lee Haworth, who presides over an early childhood court in the 12th Circuit. “The goal is to break the multi-generational cycle of abuse with these kids. We’re saving lives.”

The program is also cost-effective, Haworth said.

“When we talk about eighth months to permanency, we’re talking about not having to pay foster parents and relative caregiver funds,” Judge Haworth said. “It’s a win-win.”

Ninth Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore, who has presided over early childhood court for three years, says the non-adversarial approach works. Parents are more eager to cooperate when they learn about the risks of early childhood trauma, she said.

“If we don’t get to the core of the issue, we’re going to have children who are abused who become abusers,” Latimore said. “This program is non-adversarial so we get a much better buy in by the parents who are brought into the system.”

Book’s legislation will provide the program with much needed stability, Latimore said. Early childhood courts in Central Florida have been hampered in the past by a shortage of therapists, the result of funding shortages, Judge Latimore said.

“This will stabilize the program a lot more if we are able to have a centralized location like OSCA to be able to provide resources, training as well as coordinate all of the circuits,” Latimore said.

Kristie Skoglund, chief operating officer for the Florida Center for Early Childhood in Sarasota, agrees.

In her circuit, Skoglund said, Sarasota County can only afford a single team to serve some 20 families a year. But in Manatee County, two teams can serve 40 families, Skoglund said.

OSCA leadership would strengthen the program, Skoglund said.

“It’s really important because in a lot of circuits the community coordinators are with local non-profits, or under the community based care organization, and there’s just inconsistency,” Skoglund said. “And it can create challenges in various ways in terms of how the program is run.”

Book’s bill comes with a nearly $2 million price tag. A House companion has yet to receive a hearing.