Safe Babies: Changing the Foster Care System for Children Under 3

Guest Blog By Sadie Funk, CEO, First3Years
Babies Can't Wait

Imagine a child looking back on their time in foster care as though it were time spent with a good friend. Imagine a baby being comforted by the smell of their parent on a blanket that was given to the foster parent at a visit earlier in the day. Imagine a 4 year old picking out their outfit for their first day of Pre-K with both birth and foster mom together through use of Skype technology.

Although these situations may not always be feasible, doesn’t it feel good to think about a foster care system that provides such positive experiences for children even amidst the chaos?

But how do we go about getting there? What are those key pieces of transformation that can prevent further trauma for a child while in the system? Furthermore, how can we best promote the healing process, ensuring children feel safe and loved at every step along the way?

When trying to answer these questions, it’s necessary to step away from the processes that currently prioritize what’s easiest for adults. The entire child welfare system and its dozens of private and public partners must instead begin to focus on what’s best for children, especially when children are under the age of three.

In order to get to this point, we need policies and practices that acknowledge and implement what current research in the field has shown, such as these following facts:

  1. Babies are most vulnerable. 85% of core brain development happens by age three. There is no more important time to intervene than during the first three years of life. A lack of words and external display of stress does not equate to resilience. Only nurturing relationships with consistent adult caregivers provides resilience.
  2. Developmental Science clearly shows that children, and especially babies, are dependent on nurturing relationships with key adult caregivers to facilitate their health and well-being. These relationships support their ability to learn, regulate emotions, and develop cognitive skills. They also act as a buffer against the negative impact of adversity such as abuse, neglect, poverty and trauma.
  3. Nobody wants the absolute best for a child more than their birth and foster parents. Bringing them together around the child to coordinate care-giving makes the child feel safe. It has other advantages, such as:
    • Helping provide peer support to the birth parent and a relationship through which they can learn new parenting skills necessary to care for their child.
    • Allows the relationship to continue after the case closes, providing an additional positive adult figure in the life of the child and source of respite for the birth parent.

Just as children need to see their divorced parents getting along, children in foster care also need to see birth and foster parents getting along. Both parenting relationships matter, which is why children need to know that both parents support them no matter who they live with.

The good news is that it’s possible to integrate policies and practices that are developmentally informed without completely re-inventing the wheel. In North Texas, child welfare stakeholders involved in the Safe Babies Initiative are working together to make this a reality by:

    • Supporting birth and foster parents to work together during visitation;
    • Ensuring all babies are referred to Early Childhood Intervention upon removal, rather than left to the opinion of Foster Parents; and,
    • Recognizing that in order for relationships to be most supported, emotional health is critical to overall safety.

Together with the evaluation partnership between First3Years and the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing, we are beginning to see the early results of the Safe Babies program in North Texas, which includes:

    • An increase in reunification;
    • An increase in health and wellbeing and decrease in developmental delays upon exiting foster care;
    • An increase in children staying in contact with birth/foster parent after the case closed, despite outcomes (reunification v. adoption) and;
    • And a decrease in recidivism.

As we look to various forms of Foster Care reform, it’s important to keep in mind what children really need. Children need to feel connected to important adults in their lives and have relationships that support their healthy emotional development. Long-term outcomes won’t truly shift until we have a child welfare system that honors relationships as critical to who a child is, how they feel about themselves, and their ability to learn and grow.

First3Years and TXICFW will continue to partner and evaluate the Safe Babies program for the next few years. First3Years is currently meeting with stakeholders to explore the feasibility of bringing Safe Babies to Houston. Learn more about our project partnership here.

To watch our original animated video on our year one Safe Babies Program evaluation findings, click below:

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