'Baby Court' in Genesee County uses innovative treatment concept


by Linda Laderman
Legal News

An op-ed column in the November 28 edition of The New York Times by Genesee County Circuit Judge David Newblatt is helping to shine new light on the county’s Infant and Toddler Treatment Court, more often referred to as “Baby Court.”

Newblatt wrote the piece, “A Baby Court Offers Ray of Hope for Families,” in response to the October 28 column by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof: “3 TV’s and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America,” in which Kristof talks about the challenges that children below the poverty line face.

A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Kristof writes about human rights, women’s rights, health and global affairs for the Times.

“Too many American kids are set up for failure when they are born into what might be called the ‘broken class,’ where violence, mental illness, drugs and sexual abuse infuse childhood. Yes, such young people sometimes do stupid things, but as a society, we fail them long before they fail us,” Kristof writes.

Kristof says that a wide range of remedies, instead of a narrowly focused plan, should be employed by social service agencies to assist children whose mental health is endangered as a result of their economic situation. He describes this as a “silver buckshot” approach.

“There are no silver bullets to eradicate these challenges, but there is ‘silver buckshot’ — an array of policies that make a difference. Early childhood initiatives have a particularly good record, as do efforts to promote work, like the earned-income tax credit. Financial literacy programs help families manage money — and avoid buying large-screen TVs on credit,” Kristoff says.

Describing silver buckshot is a methodology that uses many tactics at the same time hit home, Judge Newblatt says.

“I read his column and I thought, ‘This is what we are doing in Genesee County.’  We are doing everything we can do to fight poverty in Genesee County. We can’t wait for a silver bullet; we need silver buckshot.”

Newblatt points out that he, along with Baby Court coordinator and MSW Erin Werth have developed a plan that successfully uses Kristof’s silver buckshot concept to help children and their families achieve and sustain an environment that offers emotional stability.

In his op-ed piece, Newblatt writes, “Creating effective silver buckshot in family court starts with a recognition of three truths. First, early childhood experiences, both good and bad, have an outsized effect on lifelong well-being and functionality. Second, the single biggest threat is from trauma, so it is imperative to both prevent it and treat its impact. Finally, we get better with collaborative wraparound models, when families trust and are invested in the process. Our system, based on trauma-informed practice with an emphasis on early childhood has become a model in Michigan.”

Through Kristof, who has two million followers on Twitter, Newblatt said he found social media could bring more attention to children’s mental health issues.

“Many have told me that, until my article, they didn’t understand the important role that family court could play in fighting poverty; that it represents a sea change in attitude of what is possible,” Newblatt says.

According to Newblatt and Werth, two other Michigan counties, Wayne and Midland, have developed Baby Courts, based on the Genesee County model, that underscores infant mental health through early intervention, teamwork, and community stakeholders.

“Erin and I go all over the state talking about our programs,” says Newblatt. “We have frequent visitors from other counties and help in any way we can.”

With a reunification rate nearly three times that of the nation average, the Baby Court remains focused on intensity and individual attention.

“We have intentionally not grown too fast,” says Werth, who is also an infant mental health therapist. “We feel our program works best when we can provide intensive services and oversight to a small number of families, rather than a little too many.”

Despite a large demand for services, the small number of trained infant mental health therapists in Genesee County has limited the number of families whose children benefit from the Baby Court to 10 to 12 annually.

“We have been very fortunate to have a subset of very skilled and trained infant mental health therapists, however these therapists also have to serve the rest of our community,” says Werth. “In Genesee County, the need is great, and our resources are limited.  We just simply do not have enough therapists to expand baby court further and also still have therapists available to serve the families who are not in Baby Court. It’s a balance that is difficult to manage sometimes.”

Apart from the management challenges, Werth attributes the success of the court with her colleagues’ ability to cut through barriers “that can be significant and sometimes in surmountable in other programs.”

“We keep the focus on the baby and work at the child's pace with his or her needs in mind. As a result, we see greater success, with a 70 to 80 percent reunification rate, and very little recidivism – only four families since 2008,” Werth notes. “Because we leave no stone unturned we can feel confident that if a case does have to unfortunately result in the termination of parental rights, it is truly what is in the best interest of that child.”

“Another important success we have had is we have cultivated and created a team of people in the courts and in the communities that truly understand the needs of this very vulnerable population and are equipped to meet those needs.  We pride ourselves on having a consistent team of workers, lawyers, and therapists, many of which have been with us since the beginning and plan to remain on into the future, “Werth says.

In addition to the team of mental health professionals and attorneys who work with the court, Werth says the court’s consistently good outcomes are due, in large part, to the high regard in which Newblatt holds
social workers.

“I’ve been in many courtrooms where the attorneys and social workers did not work together,” Werth says. “Our judge speaks our language. He should get an honorary social worker’s degree.”

Responding to that, Newblatt says, “I have great respect for social workers.

I understand my role as a judge, but this is a team approach where we all come together to root for the families.”