COMMENTARY: A 'Baby Court' offers ray of hope for families


– Photo by Paul Janczewski

David Newblatt is the Presiding Judge of the Genesee County Family Court.

By David Newblatt

As a family court judge in Flint, I see poverty flood my courtroom in a vicious cycle of cases in dependency, delinquency, criminality, and then back to dependency. The mantra in family court is that no one should lose their kids because they’re poor. The sad reality is that this happens all too often when generational poverty creates what Nicholas Kristof  of The New York Times calls a “broken class.”

Many times it falls to the courts to fix families. It would be nice if it were easy. But often courts lock up a juvenile or terminate a parent’s rights and the vicious cycle continues to turn unabated. I agree that there is no “silver bullet” to solve the problems facing the poorest Americans; instead we must use “silver buckshot.” This is what we are doing in Genesee County, which encompasses Flint.

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 results with collaborative wraparound models, when families trust and are invested in the process.

These truths, applicable in other poverty stricken communities, are especially evident in our experiences in Flint. Our system, based on trauma-informed practice with an emphasis on early childhood, has become a model in Michigan.

In the dependency system, where children come under court jurisdiction because of parental abuse or neglect, we created a special program called “Baby Court.” Based upon research showing the profound impact of early childhood experiences on the brain relating to cognition, development, emotional stability and attachment, Baby Court provides infant mental health therapy and intensive wraparound services.

We have successfully helped families overcome mental illness, drug addiction, domestic violence and extreme dysfunction. The national family reunification rate for children under the age of 3 who are in foster care is 26 percent. Baby Court has boosted reunification to 76 percent.

We have a collaborative approach to determining paternity, and don’t rely solely on suing fathers in a prosecutorial model. This is critical in Flint, where more than 80 percent of births are to unmarried parents. We are changing the paradigm from merely chasing after “deadbeat dads” to one of engaging fathers and their extended families to have as many loving arms around the child as possible. We can establish paternity within weeks rather than waiting the months or years that it takes for a lawsuit. We want to meet all of the needs of a family in a holistic way initially, in order to prevent later dependency. Also, we can offer genetic testing immediately, thus reducing the number of wrongly named fathers.

To prevent at-risk girls from falling victim to human trafficking and other bad outcomes, we created Girls Court. Our Girls Court, the first and only in Michigan, works with girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who are defendants in the delinquency system. Although they have broken the law, we understand that their behaviors (substance abuse, stealing, running away, truancy and violence) are actually manifestations of trauma. In other words, trauma both explains their offending behavior and identifies them as at-risk for victimization. That is why Girls Court focuses like a laser beam on treating trauma; establishing realistic thinking, emotional regulation and life structure. By helping girls build functionality and resiliency, we are preventing unwanted pregnancies or, if they do ultimately become pregnant, preventing a new generation from coming into the system.

The idea of “silver buckshot” in family court is powerful because it challenges us to do more than just make decisions based upon the way we have always done things. It forces us to treat our contacts with families as opportunities to lift up those in poverty so they can live happy, healthy and productive lives. In Genesee County, we’ve seen the transformations that can happen when a court thinks bigger.
This column first appeared as an op-ed in the November 28 edition of The New York Times. It is reprinted with the permission of Genesee County Family Court Judge David Newblatt.