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Helping Babies from the Bench in Nebraska: A State Cross-System Approach

Amy BunnellJudge JohnsonAmy Bunnell, Early Development Network Program Coordinator, State of Nebraska

Hon. Douglas Johnson, Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, NE

Summary: The authors describe the creation of the Nebraska stakeholder training program, now celebrating its fifth year.


How can awareness of the needs of infants and toddlers be raised within the child welfare and court system? How can we ensure the most vulnerable population receives the best resources and expertise their community has to offer? How can a system that struggles daily with lack of funding, services and resources, along with high staff turnover, be improved for families? Nebraska stakeholders began asking these questions—and then answered them by working across systems to broaden stakeholder perspective and build community resources to meet the needs of infants and toddlers. We all want to better serve the youngest who enter the court system, as we know if we don’t get it right, in this very moment, then the societal costs, and personal costs to the child, are great.

The Hon. Doug Johnson, of the Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, NE, is one leader who realized that change is driven not only by strong visionary leadership, but also through effective collaboration with external partners who hold similar desires. As the Nebraska Part C early intervention co-coordinator, I was contacted by Judge Johnson. He shared his own struggles with maintaining court improvement, along with his vision for improved outcomes for Nebraska’s abused and neglected infants and toddlers. Because of his willingness to collaborate, new partnerships were developed, and shared visions began driving change within our state. We assembled a multidisciplinary team of professionals to bring expertise and knowledge to local court stakeholders regarding the developmental needs of infants and toddlers within the abuse and neglect system with a one-day training seminar, titled “Helping Babies from the Bench.”The training focused on the development of abused and neglected infants and toddlers, and on court improvement practices that would ensure the best possible outcomes are achieved for these children. Presenters and topics include:

  • Dr. Mark Hald, infant-child psychologist, discussed the science of brain development and the impact of trauma on infant and toddler development, as well as necessary infant mental health treatment services.
  • Kelli Hauptmann, attorney, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Center for Children, Families and the Law, covered using court data to drive improved outcomes in achieving permanency for infants and toddlers.
  • Amy Bunnell and Joan Luebbers, with the Nebraska Early Development Network (Part C), discussed CAPTA requirements, Part C evaluations and services, and using CAPTA data to collaborate between agencies to achieve shared outcomes.
  • The Hon. Doug Johnson, Juvenile Court Judge, Douglas County, NE, discussed using the NCJFCJ Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse & Neglect Cases to implement best court practices for infants and toddlers and their families.

This one-day training series began in 2008 and is co-sponsored by The Nebraska Early Development Network (EDN) and the UNL-Center for Children, Families, and the Law (CCFL). We have trained local stakeholders in 15 communities across Nebraska, and 2012 marks our fifth year providing this statewide training series. Some communities have been visited twice, providing participants with “Phase II” information—embedding best practice within local court/agency process and developing court improvement action plans with stakeholder commitment.

The Nebraska Early Development Network values cross-system collaboration to drive improved outcomes for the zero-to-three population. Therefore, EDN utilized a portion of the Part C-American Recovery Reinvestment Act stimulus funds to invest in the training of court stakeholders in infant and toddler development with the following trainings:

  • “Infant Mental Health: Identification and Treatment Services.”  Presenters: Joy Osofsky, PhD; Julie Larrieu, Dr. Julie Larrieu, PhD; and Dr. Paula Zeanah of Tulane University.
  • “Infant-Toddler Social-Emotional Regional Forums.” Facilitator: Dr. Mark Hald. A  discussion among community stakeholders in five regions regarding cross-systems collaboration in identifying social-emotional delays in infants and toddlers and available community resources.
  • “Bridges out of Poverty.”  Presenter: Jodi Pfarr; a two-day conference and follow-up workshop.
  • “Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, Nursery Program.” Presenters: Correctional center staff trained in “Love and Logic” curriculum on parenting and developmental/attachment. teachings to incarcerated mothers who reside with their infants in the Nursery Program. The Nursery program received developmentally appropriate play materials to give incarcerated mothers the opportunity to learn how to play with their children.
  • “DC: 0-3R Manual Training.” Presenter: Karen Frankel, PhD. Overview of utilization of the Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health Disorders of Infancy and Early Childhood manual (revised edition) for the 0-3 population.
  • Funding provided to UNL-CCFL to train guardians ad litem and child protection agency personnel in the medical, health and developmental needs of infants and toddlers within the child welfare system.
  • Purchase of children’s books for family and juvenile court judges to provide for families within the abuse and neglect court system.

Read more about the Nebraska Co-Lead Initiatives.

By working collaboratively across systems, change can not only begin, but be sustained. It’s important to the babies we serve to reach beyond the current system stakeholders we engage with, in order to meet their unique needs. Challenge yourself to extend a hand to another person or agency with whom you have not yet collaborated with. Amazing change can occur from this simple act.

Author biographies:

Amy Bunnell received a bachelor's degree with honors in Criminal Justice from University of NE at Kearney. She has 4years of experience as a case manager in corrections in both Kansas and Nebraska. She has also worked for over 11 years in Nebraska Child Protective Services, 5 of those years as a supervisor in Lincoln. Since 2007, Amy has been employed as the Nebraska early development network program coordinator. She provides consultation, training and technical assistance to services coordinators, educators and family members across the state regarding early intervention regulations, policy and procedures.

Hon. Douglas Johnson presides over Nebraska's first Family Drug Treatment Court, the first court in the nation to focus on infants and toddlers. He played a major role in starting Douglas County's CASA program. He is co-chair of the Nebraska Supreme Court's Commission on Children in the Courts and serves on the Governor’s Commission on Protection of Children. Judge Johnson also served as a lead judge in the NCJFCJ's Child Victims Act Model Courts Project and is a past president of NCJFCJ.

A graduate of Creighton University School of Law, Judge Johnson frequently teaches on behalf of the NCJFCJ. He is an adjunct professor of law at Creighton University School of Law where he has taught Juvenile Law since 1995. Judge Johnson completed the two-year Leaders for the 21st Century Fellowship program of ZERO TO THREE, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. He regularly contributes articles to The Judges’ Page.




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