There’s a new court in town, and it’s all about keeping babies safe while working to rehabilitate their parents who struggle with abuse, addictions, neglect issues and a host of dysfunctional family problems. This court offers hope and a future.
Knox County Juvenile Court’s new program that is working to be a voice for those babies and for their parents is the Safe Baby Court. This pilot program is aimed at combating child abuse, neglect and substance addiction in families involved with the Department of Children Services (DCS).
Safe Baby Court is a specialized court program established for infants and toddlers, birth to 3 years old. The program’s goal is to connect families with their communities and provide a strong foundation for infant mental health. SBC coordinates community resources, services and long-term support with families during a critical time in infant brain development.
Knox County’s Safe Baby Court began on Jan. 1, 2018, with Kaki Reynolds as its coordinator. The program is funded by a $900,000 contract with the DCS. The contract ends in June 2022 and will have to be renewed if the program is to go forward.
This same program is also being used in six other counties across the state – Coffee, Grundy, Davidson, Madison, Stewart and Johnson. It’s soon coming to Anderson, Jefferson, Henry and Dickson counties.
On Wednesday, Reynolds introduced the Rotary Club of Farragut to the program. It is indeed a multi-faceted effort that requires skillsets from a variety of professionals in the child welfare business. A team of professionals who work on these cases may be made up of members including the Safe Baby Court coordinator, the birth parents, substitute caregivers, child welfare agency staff, attorneys, infant mental health specialists and others.
“A key component of the program is family engagement,” Reynolds said. “That’s the core component. We have to build the safety (and) the trust and encourage the parents so we can hear from them and work with them throughout the process.”
Today the program is working with 13 families and about 30 kids. She added that they do work with kids older than 3 when there is more than one child in the family. “We have one family now with seven kids; the oldest is 16 and we are working with all of them,” she explained.
Parents submit to random drug tests during the program.
One new term that is a key component to the success is “infant mental health” – how babies react to relationships, the strength and quality of those relationships and early childhood development. She said young babies are affected by the behaviors of caregivers, of their caregivers constantly changing and other stresses.
“The success of our program is permanency – if the baby is reunited with one or both parents or relatives or through adoptions,” she said.
To date, they have had two “graduations” in which two babies have been reunited with their birth mothers who are now drug-free.
She said the program was created in response to the statewide abuse of opioids, but that in 2018, for the first time, the number of opioid cases declined in the state, and especially at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital. The drugs of choice now are crystal meth and cocaine, she said.
“The program is going good and I hope we can keep it funded and grow it up to 25 cases real quick,” said Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin. “We’d rather not put children in foster care beds but in their own beds at home. We’re lucky to have Kaki Reynolds and Magistrate Michael Fortune working together on this program. Kaki is doing wonderful work as the coordinator and making it all work.”
Fortune also is working to establish a 501(c)(3) Juvenile Court Assistance Board so people can make tax-free contributions to help fund the program.
“A new baby is like the beginning of all things – wonder, hope, a dream of possibilities,” wrote Edna J. LeShan, an American writer, television host, counselor, educator and playwright. She was known as a “voice of respect for the inherent integrity of children.”
Safe Baby Court is a program of hope – and we need more of these types of programs.
If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. You also can call me at 865-659-3562.
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California. He started writing for KnoxTNToday in 2017.