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Supporting Infants and Toddlers in Child Welfare and CourtBellBentley-Johnson

Diamond Berry









Pictured left to right:


Darneshia Bell, Community Coordinator, Safe Babies Court Team Project, Zero to Three
Dawn Bentley-Johnson, Supervising Community Coordinator, Safe Babies Court Team Project, Zero to Three

Kimberly Diamond-Berry, Assistant Director, Safe Babies Court Team Project, Zero to Three                                                  

Kristi McGibbony, Assistant Community Coordinator, Safe Babies Court Team Project, Zero to Three


Summary: The authors explain how the collaborative approach of improving services to infants and toddlers has caused a ripple effect of improving services to all families in Little Rock, AR, and New Orleans, LA. 

Infants and toddlers in the child welfare system often experience disrupted attachments from biological parents as a result of abuse and neglect; judges are in a unique position to advocate for and support very young children as they move through the system. Early screening and intervention for very young children during this period can change the trajectory of their lives from unhealthy to healthy developmental outcomes. Specialized courts and court teams focusing on infants and toddlers provide an innovative process for early screening and intervention to occur. Spearheaded by Zero to Three (ZTT) in 2005, the Safe Babies Court Teams Project is one such intervention. The project is led by judges who collaborate with child development specialists to create teams of child welfare and health professionals, child advocates and community leaders.


Safe Babies Court Teams have operated in diverse communities and have been able to use the collaborative power of the team to effect positive changes in services to infants and toddlers in their respective communities. In two such communities—Little Rock, AR, and New Orleans, LA—improving services to infants and toddlers has had the ripple effect of improving services to all families.


Little Rock, AR


When the Arkansas Pilot Court Team for Safe Babies Project began in Little Rock in 2009, the community acknowledged the gap in infant mental health services for infants and toddlers who had experienced early trauma. With the support of ZTT, the court team was able to bring Dr. Joy Osofsky (an expert in Infant Mental Health from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center) to Little Rock, where she helped establish the Arkansas Association of Infant Mental Health (AAIMH) and trained nine clinicians in child parent psychotherapy (CPP). This is the only form of therapy available in the state of Arkansas for the 0–3 population. AAIMH has assisted the court team in consistently linking agencies and service providers. Nine agencies are currently CPP-trained, and the number of families with infants and toddlers receiving this service will continue to grow and increase as new service providers are trained.


Increased community awareness and provision of infant mental health services has helped repair and heal relationships between very young children and their parents. The court team recognized that nine providers throughout the state were insufficient to address the mental health needs of children. As a result, the Arkansas Pilot Court Team has further collaborated with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in securing funding to train 70 additional CPP providers across the state.


As the court team began meeting more frequently, the project identified other gaps in the system of care for infants and toddlers. The team continues to work with the community to enhance attachment assessments, quality childcare and early intervention services.


New Orleans, LA


When the New Orleans Safe Babies Court Team started in 2006, the community was poised to provide services to infants, toddlers and families that would yield more successful outcomes. To do this, the community required coordination between service providers. Community service providers were often unaware of each other or of work being done with the same families at their respective agencies. To overcome this, the court team began holding monthly case staffings (meetings with all service providers working with a particular family), where community providers identified gaps in service delivery. Service providers were then able to provide more coordinated and timely services to very young children and their families.


One example of this service coordination is the court team’s collaboration with the infant team. Before the court team, the infant team provided clinical services to young children who had experienced trauma, as long as the biological parent was available. Recognizing the importance of the services provided, the court team encouraged the infant team to provide services with a relative caregiver or foster parent instead. Now the infant team provides services to all children monitored by the court team.


The court team also found that services babies received were determined by child welfare workers assigned to the case. Some workers were well versed in the benefits of assessments by Early Steps—the state’s Part C early intervention service—so those children were referred. Other workers were not well-versed, so the opportunity to identify complications and correct them was missed. Through the work of the court team, all court team children are now referred to Early Steps. This allows providers to identify and address developmental delays early, providing the early intervention necessary for improved developmental outcomes.




For infants and toddlers in child welfare, early intervention is crucial to creating a solid foundation for healthy development. Consistent collaboration with service providers and stakeholders strengthens community systems of care for the most vulnerable of our children.



Author biographies:


Darneshia Bell as over 20 years of experience working with young children. She joined Zero to Three as the community coordinator for the AR Pilot Safe Babies Court Team in 2009. Bell has presented on the safety and wellbeing of infants and toddlers in child welfare on local and national levels. She is a member of the Arkansas FASD State Task Force, the Invest Early Initiative, the Governor’s Work-Life Balance Initiative, the Judicial Improvement Committee, The Strengthening Families Coalition, the AR NEST (AR Network for Early Stress and Trauma) Steering-Committee and serves as a member of the board of the Arkansas Association for Infant Mental Health.



Dawn R. Bentley-Johnson as more than 17 years of experience in the field of child and adult protective services as a case manager and investigator. Bentley-Johnson has conducted educational presentations at national training institutes and in-service trainings to community groups. She also co-authored articles for national journals and she has experience as an adjunct instructor at the college level in criminology and juvenile justice and delinquency.  



Kimberly P. Diamond-Berry s Assistant Director of the Safe Babies Court Teams Project at Zero to Three. She has worked with children of all ages and families for over 25 years in the areas of multicultural counseling, community psychology and private practice. Prior to joining the Safe Babies Court Teams Project, she was a program analyst and writer for the Early Head Start National Resource Center at Zero to Three. Diamond-Berry also worked for the Alexandria Head Start Program as the Mental Health Manager. She has been a lecturer and adjunct professor of counseling and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, Northern Virginia Community College and Bowie State University. 


Kristi McGibbony spent many years in the legal field, including time in the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Office of Chief Counsel. She taught kindergarten at a private school in Little Rock, AR, for over 10 years, and has had extensive training in early childhood education and development. McGibbony also worked as an advocate supervisor for Pulaski County CASA. She has been utilizing her legal, early childhood and child welfare experience as the assistant community coordinator for the Arkansas Pilot Court Team for Safe Babies since 2011.








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