By Christian McPhate
Mary Dozier was watching the nightly news when she saw a report about a child who was upset because she was being taken away from her foster mom and given to her birth mom. “She didn’t know the foster parent wasn’t her mother,” says Dozier, who had a child of her own in the early ’90s.
At the University of Delaware, Dozier, a professor in the psychology department, had been working with adults with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but she wanted to find a better way to foster a relationship between the birth parent, the child and the foster parent. She began asking questions, trying to understand how children adapted from separation with the birth parent and being reunited in visitation and to help them learn how to deal with it.
“They can’t understand how the person tucking them in at night isn’t mother,” she says.
Dozier developed a model called Fostering Relationships to get rid of the stigma of foster parents being the bad guys and create a nourishing co-parenting relationship between foster and birth parents to deal with the child’s needs in a healthy way. It’s a system being used by the Safe Babies program, an initiative by First3Years, a statewide nonprofit formerly known as Texas Association for Infant Mental Health that seeks to educate, advocate and collaborate to support the healthy development of infants and toddlers.
Safe Babies, which will be implemented in early 2018 in Dallas County, seeks to lessen the long-term impact of neglect and increase the likelihood of reunification. It does so by repairing the attachment bond between parent and child and approaching cases from the lens of the child.
The program comes at a time when Gov. Greg Abbott is determined to reform Child Protective Services and what one federal judge called “the broken foster care system.” In May, Abbott signed several laws that allow CPS to increase foster home capacity and place more children with relatives. His ultimate goal is to end child deaths in the Texas foster care system.
“Children dying while in the care of the state is intolerable,” Abbott said in a May 31 press release. “These new laws are a needed step to ending such tragedies.”
According to numbers provided by CPS, in 2016, more than 58,000 children in Texas were confirmed as victims of abuse or neglect, and 39 percent of confirmed abuse and neglect cases involved infants and toddlers. More than 140 children died after being involved in three or more CPS investigations from 2010-14, Texas Monthly reported in January.
It’s a number that continued to rise even after Abbott started overhauling CPS, according to a Dec. 22, 2016, report by The Dallas Morning News.
Each year, about 20,000 children from Dallas County are suspected of being abused; about 5,000 cases are confirmed. The number has remained steady since 2008, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services reported.
“We have years where they increase or decrease slightly,” says Marissa Gonzales, a CPS spokeswoman. “It could be a number of factors: the number of investigations overall, the types of allegations being investigated, perhaps public awareness. No concrete answer, really.”
Tarrant County initiated the Safe Babies program in 2015 as part of a $100,000 grant awarded by the Meadows Foundation to address the number of children in the foster care system. It’s based on the Safe Baby Court program, which has been successfully implemented at the state level in Arizona, California and Florida and in numerous counties across the country, including Fort Bend and Harris counties in Texas. The program uses techniques from Dozier’s Fostering Relationships model.
Dozier points out that children in foster care face several challenges that threaten their ability to form attachment relationships. This includes when children are placed in one foster parent’s home and moved to another foster home because of space, according to Dozier’s article “Intervening With Foster Parents to Enhance Biobehavioral Outcomes Among Infants and Toddlers” published by Zero to Three in January 2011.
“The capacity of young children in foster care to form trusting relationships with their foster parents and to regulate behavior and physiology are affected by many things,” Dozier wrote, including “what the children bring to the new relationship, what the foster parents bring to the relationship and how the system of foster care operates.”
Dozier says the Fostering Relationships model tackles these issues. For example, it prepares birth parents on what to expect when they are reunited with their child, who may not recognize them, especially if he or she was removed from the home as an infant or toddler.
“Children who have been separated from their parents will push them away,” she says. “[It] helps them to prepare for the rejection and provides skills to follow the child’s lead.”
The Safe Babies initiative takes Dozier’s idea and implements it with help from the community, including foster parents, judges, lawyers, CPS and court-appointed special advocates, Safe Babies coordinator Matt Willoughby says. He says independent case managers are also assigned to help parents navigate the CPS system by giving them access to services that better educate them on their responsibilities to CPS, connect them with community services and foster co-parenting between them and the foster parents.
”The child has way less transition issues in the Safe Babies program and no longer act[s] out,” Willoughby says. “It really allows the child to feel comfortable. The parent can recognize it and focus on what they need to do [to get the child back].”
When Willoughby first started in April, the program in Tarrant County had 34 trained foster families. Now it has 57. The typical foster care case in North Texas may take 22 months; the Safe Babies program cuts that time to nine months in many cases, Willoughby says. The nine-month turnaround isn’t a guarantee — the parents must stay sober and complete their service requirements.
Independent evaluations of the Safe Baby Court model in other locations showed children served were moved through the foster care system faster, according to the First3Years website.
Safe Babies Initiative of Tarrant County works with the 323rd District Court, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, Child Protective Services, court-appointed special advocates, ACH Child and Family Services: Our Community Our Kids, Early Childhood Intervention Services and Challenge Tarrant County.
In Dallas County, Willoughby says, Safe Babies will be working with the 302nd District Court.
“Safe Babies allows [birth parents] to have that buffer [to get their children back from CPS],” he says. “They just need somebody to rely on, help support them and recognize that they are doing well. We are just trying to strengthen their family.”