The Strong Starts Court Initiative enhances the capacity of Family Court to bring positive changes to court-involved babies and their families.
There are more than 16,000 infants and toddlers with active cases in the Family Courts in New York State and 10,000 in NYC alone. These children, who essentially start life in the child welfare system, often face serious adversities such as maltreatment, trauma, and attachment disruptions impacting their formative years and systems-adversities, including minimal contact between parents and infants in foster care, multiple moves in foster care, and abrupt changes in caregivers. All these increase stress—and even trauma—for infants and toddlers can result in lifelong impairments in health, social competence, and learning. Positive experiences, on the other hand, can set a secure foundation for physical and emotional well-being.
The Strong Starts Court Initiative was developed in response to these gaps and, after being piloted in the Bronx Family Court in 2015, has expanded city-wide and to Westchester County. The Strong Starts Court Initiative brings expertise in early child development to all stages of Family Court proceedings and supports infants, toddlers, caregivers, and families so that the court becomes a catalyst for positive change in the lives of the youngest children.
Children under six make up a disproportionate percentage of those entering the foster care system. In 2013, the Bronx saw 711 children under the age of 2 involved in Family Court cases. Because infancy is the most plastic and receptive period of human development, adverse experiences during this time can result in lifelong impairments in health, social competence, and learning. Positive experiences, on the other hand, can set a secure foundation for physical and emotional well-being.
The Strong Starts Court Initiative fills gaps in the current approach to court-involved infants. Infants often remain in out-of-home placements as cases drag on, sometimes for years. Limited contact with parents and frequent changes in care jeopardize infant development, and signs of developmental delays are often not identified or addressed. In addition, the complex needs of birth parents are not comprehensively assessed, resulting in inadequate or inappropriate service plans.
The Strong Starts Court Initiative accomplished the following goals:
- Ensure that infants and parents receive comprehensive screening and assessment at entry into the child welfare system, and periodically thereafter, to generate appropriate and targeted service plans.
- Create a network of community-based service, including child development services, adult development services, and services required for family stability.
- Shift from an adversarial to a collaborative approach in addressing the needs of families. This includes holding frequent case conferences to ensure that child and family needs are being met, tracking individual progress, and addressing barriers to service provision or family progress. Frequent court appearances permit dedicated judges to monitor service provision and family response to services, and thus to work toward expedited permanency planning for infants and toddlers.