Rutherford County, TN—A mother of two regained custody of her children and celebrated a new chapter of her life recently at the first graduation ceremony of the Rutherford County Safe Baby Court. Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport presided over the ceremony.
The Rutherford County Safe Baby Court, like other Safe Baby Courts in the state, is a program for families with at least one child under three years of age. The overarching goal of the program is to reduce childhood trauma by lessening the amount of time that children are kept away from a stable, healthy home environment after their parents become involved with the justice system.
Parents who enter Safe Baby Court have lost custody of their children, often as a result of problems related to substance use disorders. In Safe Baby Court, they are connected with a number of wraparound services to help them deal with their issues and regain control of their lives. The Juvenile Court judge and Safe Baby Court staff regularly meet with program participants to offer encouragement and to check on their progress. When they deem that a participant has met their goals, that participant graduates and regains custody of their children.
On the day of the graduation, Judge Davenport addressed the mother in court as her two young sons sat with her.
“You did it,” Judge Davenport said. “If you stumbled, you didn’t stumble hard and you didn’t stumble far. You pulled right up. You got that job. You got a home. You got everything. And we are so proud of you. We are so proud of you.”
While the Rutherford County Safe Baby Court functions similarly to others in the state and around the country, it is unique in one important way: it exclusively handles non-custodial cases, where children have been placed with vetted family or friends or remain in the home while parents participate in court-ordered services rather than in foster care.
“We are trying to prevent these children from coming into foster care by doing this work with the families and their extended families,” Safe Baby Court Coordinator Carrie Niederhauser said. “We’re trying to pull all of them together to build support around mom or dad before it gets the point where you’ve burnt all those bridges and nobody is willing or able to take care of these children and we have to put them into foster care, which is traumatic. Children are going to a home where they know no one. We felt like this population was traditionally underserved because there are a lot of eyes on foster care, but there are not as many eyes watching these prevention types of cases.”
This mother who became the Rutherford County Safe Baby Court’s first graduate joined the program in July 2020, shortly after it began.
Niederhauser said the change in the mother from then until now has been profound.
“Mom in this case has done amazingly well,” she said. “Her attitude is dramatically changed. She has done amazing things. She is on her way to being the best mom that she can be for those precious little boys.”
That change came about as a result of a lot of hard work on the part of the mother, the Safe Baby Court team, and the many local stakeholders and service providers whose contributions make the program possible.
Since joining the program, the mother virtually attended a child and family team meeting each month, consisting of herself, attorneys, service providers, and court staff. At those meetings, the mother could talk about what was going on in her life, including the progress she was making or any struggles she was experiencing. The mother also had monthly hearings with Judge Davenport, where the judge could assess how she was doing. In between these monthly meetings were any number of informal telephone or text conversations and check-ins, where the mother could gain additional support when she needed it.
One of the most important aspects of Safe Baby Court, according to Judge Davenport and Niederhauser, is the regular family visitation that is allowed. If a person loses custody of their children and is not enrolled in Safe Baby Court, they may only be allotted four hours per month of visitation. In Safe Baby Court, though, frequent visitation is encouraged.
“You can see that child every day if it’s safe for you to see that child,” Judge Davenport said. “You can bond, hug, feed, diaper; do all the good and the bad.”
This everyday contact between parents and children further helps to reduce any trauma that can accompany a prolonged period of not living together.
At the Rutherford County Safe Baby Court graduation, that bond between mother and child looked strong. The children clearly loved being with their mom and happily showed her the toys they received as part of a graduation present. Their demeanor stood out to Judge Davenport, who has a lot of experience seeing kids react to a variety of difficult situations. In some cases, kids will keep their heads down, looking unhappy, and distrustful of their parents. That was not the case in Rutherford County.
“These children are so happy today,” Judge Davenport said.
That happiness was a testament to the efforts of the entire Safe Baby Court team, but most of all the graduate herself.
“It’s not us,” Judge Davenport said. “It’s not us at all. It’s her. It was finding down deep inside of her what was most important, and what was most important was getting past the obstacles and whatever else was keeping her from being able to keep these babies safe. And she’s done it.”
The Rutherford County Safe Baby Court is one of 12 in the state. Davidson County was home to the state’s first Safe Baby Court, started in 2016. Grundy County started a program not long after. In 2017, legislation established Safe Baby Courts in Coffee, Johnson, Knox, Madison, and Stewart Counties. Since then, additional Safe Baby Courts have gotten underway in Anderson, Dickson, Henry, and Jefferson Counties.