Hennepin County officials, seeking to find ways to help its youngest citizens grow up in stable households, have hit upon something new: Infant Court.

It’s part of the county’s three-year Infant Team pilot program, a $1 million project that provides families with intensive coaching to mend a fractured or even nonexistent bond between a baby or toddler and a caregiver. The program begins its third year in September.

“You can’t afford not to do this,” said Hennepin County District Judge Nancy Brasel, who helped spearhead the program. “We’re spending money to prevent the baby from ending up in the system.”

The program aims to break the cycle followed by many of the nearly 600 kids in the system who wind up returning to foster care over and over.

The job of the Infant Court is to oversee cases by bringing together the courts, social workers and clinicians in a coordinated way.

Last year, the county approved a $26 million multiyear plan to overhaul its system, boost staffing and launch programs like the Infant Team. The goal is to prevent abuse and save the county money in the long run.

Thirty-three families have gone through the Infant Team pilot program and 18 families are in it now. It’s voluntary, but parents get more visits with their kids if they participate.

Shifting to ‘preventive care’

Hennepin County is shifting child protection approaches from simply managing an immediate child safety crisis to a more proactive strategy that focuses on the child’s well-being.

The shift comes as the state’s most populous county confronts a record high number of child protection reports, topping 20,000 in 2016.

The number of kids in foster care or in other out-of-home placements has surged, with 2,300 last year. About 19 percent of kids in child protection re-enter foster care within a year, higher than the national standard of 8.3 percent.

“We were spending so much time and effort on services, sometimes futilely, for kids,” Brasel said.

When Hennepin County launched the program two years ago, leaders said the county may be the largest jurisdiction in the United States to do it, though similar programs have started in places like Miami and New Orleans. Minnesota leaders are taking note.

“We look forward to seeing the results of this pilot and whether it’s an approach that should be created in other communities,” Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said in a statement.

Sitting behind the bench in juvenile court, Brasel saw kids returning to the courtroom with behavioral issues that started when they were 4 or 5.

That’s when she said she realized that behavior problems must be rooted deeply to the trauma the kids had first experienced as babies. She wondered: Could the courts and the broader system do more to help babies and toddlers from the very start?

“Child protection is focused on the squeaky wheel; babies aren’t squeaky,” Brasel said. “I think of this as preventive care.”

A growing field of research has scrutinized the impact of trauma on babies, long thought to be resilient. Brasel gathered experts from St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development, Hennepin County Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Center for Early Education and Development and asked them: What can we do that’s different?

A new program

A group traveled to Tulane University in New Orleans to learn more about their infant team program that started in 1994 and provides treatment for high-risk children and families. Over four years, the program had a 67 percent decrease in the number of children returning with subsequent abuse.

Hennepin County leaders returned home to design their own program, from which came Infant Court. There the same judge and attorneys handle cases, much like the county’s Drug Court and Veterans Court. The continuity ensures that all participants are working together to get babies attached to a parent, whether adoptive, foster or birth.

With Judge James Moore presiding over a recent case, Infant Court looked much the same as traditional courts except that a representative from St. David’s was there. Moore listened to attorneys describe how a mother was in treatment while the father took care of their 7-month-old girl. Both sides agreed that things were going well, and Moore authorized unsupervised visits for the mother.

“Infants need to bond with their parent,” the judge said later.

Parents in the program must meet with experts at St. David’s for eight to 10 months of intensive intervention sessions, where they are coached on how to tune into the baby’s needs and learn cues, such as the baby crying when being held.

“Sometimes there are parents who have never had that themselves,” said Paul Lennander, the county’s human services program manager for child protection services. “We want families to succeed and leave the system and not come back.”


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