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The Effect of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams Initiative on Time to Permanency: A Summary of Evaluation Findings

Kimberly McCombs-ThorntonKimberly L. McCombs-Thornton, PhD, Evaluation Director, North Carolina Partnership for Children

Summary: The author describes the ZERO TO THREE Court Team model and its success in achieving timely permanency.

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Our youngest children experience the highest rates of child maltreatment. Infants and toddlers under age three represent about a quarter of all new child welfare cases each year. (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2011) This unpredictable parenting occurs at a critical time of their development. A stable and nurturing caregiver is important for helping children reach developmental milestones. When a developmental window is missed, it can take much nurturing and intervention to overcome the loss. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2009) Young children in the child welfare system are at risk for attachment disorders. Poor attachment can result in behavior and trust issues as the child ages. (Zeanah et al., 2001)

ZERO TO THREE Court Teams Initiative

ZERO TO THREE  (ZTT) developed the Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers Initiative to address the developmental needs of young children in the child welfare system. In the court teams model, a judge works with a community coordinator to convene representatives from the local child welfare system, legal system and service providers to form the court team. CASA volunteers and GALs play active roles on the legal teams in the communities where they are present. The court team develops a plan to implement the initiative in their community. Each site serves families of children under age three at time of entry into foster care. The model includes monthly case reviews for each family (typically court hearings and/or family team meetings); referral to child-focused services such as developmental screenings; evidence-based parent education; child-parent psychotherapy; and other activities specialized to the local community. The ZTT national office provides ongoing training and technical assistance, resource materials, and monitoring and evaluation activities. ZTT also works with interested judges and communities to secure funding. Twelve court teams sites have been funded to date.

Evaluation of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams Initiative

One of the long-term goals for the ZTT initiative is to reduce time to permanency. An evaluative study was conducted to compare data from the four initial court teams sites (n=298 children) with a nationally representative sample of children in foster care. The comparison data was drawn from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW). This comparison group (n=511) uses the same criteria for selection as ZTT court teams, namely those under the age of three at first entry into foster care. Propensity score analysis and survival analysis are used to study the effect of the program on time to permanency. Interviews were also conducted with the community coordinators to begin to understand how the initiative effects time to permanency.

Findings

The ZERO TO THREE Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers initiative has a significant effect on how quickly children exit the foster care system. ZTT cases exit foster care one year earlier on average than a nationally representative group of children from the NSCAW longitudinal survey. When we control for group differences, we find that ZTT children leave foster care nearly three times as fast as the comparison group.

Young children typically exit foster care in one of four ways: reunification, adoption, relative guardian, or non-relative guardian. (HHS) Research shows that reunification typically requires much less time in foster care than adoption. To begin to understand how the ZTT program accelerates time to permanency, the study next considered the effect of the initiative on types of exits from foster care. The effect of the program on time to permanency is in fact explained somewhat by differences in types of exits. Reunification was the most common type of exit for ZTT children while adoption was the most typical for NSCAW. However, the analysis also found that ZTT children spent much less time in foster care regardless of the type of exit. Of children who were reunified, ZTT cases exited foster care 8 months faster on average. Among those who were adopted, ZTT children left foster care 10 months sooner on average. Of children who reached permanency with a relative guardian, ZTT cases exited foster care 3 to 4 months faster on average. And lastly, among children exiting to a non-relative guardian, ZTT children left foster care an average of 10 to 13 months quicker.

Findings from the qualitative analysis suggest that a parent’s decision to comply with the CPS service plan is at the center of the permanency process. The ZTT Court Teams Initiative works to accelerate time to permanency by directly influencing parents’ decisions to comply with the service plan, as well as by supporting the social support network (which in turn supports the parents) and encouraging the child welfare system to locate services for parents and children. The judge and the monthly case reviews appear to be the key program mechanisms for moving cases more swiftly through the permanency process.

Conclusion

The ZTT Court Teams Initiative is shown to have a real impact on how quickly children exit foster care. These findings provide support for the project as an evidence-based model. Future evaluation efforts will consider other long-term outcomes as well.

Author biography:

Kimberly McCombs-Thornton, PhD, is the evaluation director at the North Carolina Partnership for Children. Prior to that she was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she conducted the evaluation of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers initiative.

References

Hafford, C., & DeSantis, D. (2009). Evaluation of the court teams for maltreated infants and toddlers project: final report. Office of Justice Grant No. 2006-MU-MU-0065. Arlington (VA): James Bell Associates.

McCombs-Thornton, K. L., & Foster, E. M. (2012). The effect of the ZERO TO THREE Court Teams Initiative on types of exits from the foster care system — A competing risks analysis. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(1), 169-178. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2011.09.013

McCombs, K. (2007). ZERO TO THREE Court Teams for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers year 1 cross-site report: evaluation findings. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

Shonkoff, J., Phillips, D. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: the science of early childhood development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 2000.

US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (n.d.). Child welfare outcomes 2002-2005: report to Congress prepared by the Children’s Bureau (ACYF, ACF) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Retrieved February 16, 2010, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cwo05/index.htm

US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation. (2008). Child maltreatment 2006. Washington, DC.

US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation. (2011). Child matreatment 2009 Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/pubs/cm09/cm09.pdf

Wulczyn, F., Hislop, K. B., & Harden, B. J. (2002). The placement of infants in foster care. Infant Ment Health J, 23(5), 454-475.

Zeanah, C., Boris, N, Lieberman, A. (2001). Attachment disorders in infancy. In M. Lewis & A. Sameroff (Eds.), Handbook of developmental psychopathology. New York: Basic Books; 2001.

 

 

 

 

 

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