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Zero to Three Family Drug Treatment Court and Other Musings for a Better Court Response to Infants and Toddlers

Judge Douglas Johnson

Judge Douglas F. Johnson, Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, NE

Summary: The author describes why he is committed to sustaining and expanding a family drug treatment court focusing on permanency for infants and toddlers while addressing parental recovery.

It’s about infants and toddlers! At this early age, the brain hard wires emotionally, socially and cognitively—for better or worse depending on one’s parent. The majority of placements of children in foster care are due to parental mental health and substance issues. But there are always co-occurring issues: failed relationships, unplanned and multiple pregnancies, absent fathers, domestic violence, chaotic lifestyle, lack of housing, joblessness and poverty. Usually, these parents are unable to care for their child as a result of never having had an adequate parent themselves.

After years of trying to serve these families on the regular docket with six month review hearings, I knew business as usual was bankrupt. Borrowing from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Family Drug Treatment Courts (FDTC) and the Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Abuse and Neglect Cases, we chose to focus on our most vulnerable children. We changed our focus in May 2005. Some years later, we were invited and accepted becoming a Zero to Three Safe Baby site.

We know that infants and toddlers have the best opportunity to thrive with timely services and a consistent caregiver. Our FDTC meets the needs of babies and parents simultaneously through frequent court appearances. CASA volunteers are a key part of our team and are assigned to be a voice for the babies. Volunteer advocates provide wonderful oversight for those who cannot fend for themselves.

This FDTC model is not solely about parental recovery. It’s about permanency for babies. Parents are given a fair chance to get better. They may or may not commence (“graduate”). Regardless, these babies thrive because if reunification did not occur, adoption would in a timely way. Foster care drift is stopped. The first placement is the last: foster-adoptive. When possible, parents live safely with their babies. We never use punitive sanctions (jail). Even the smallest positive step of a parent is rewarded with token gifts, applause and recognition. The heartbeat of this FDTC is a therapeutic intervention called child-parent psychotherapy. This tool builds a healthy relationship between parent and child. I also ask interactive questions with parents about highlights and struggles of being a mom or dad during the past week. That helps integrate and recognize the affective side to being a parent and also shows that the services are working. Parents delight in describing their children.

I cannot describe in this brief essay our 0–3 FDTC. For an in-depth discussion please read: Clinical Work with Traumatized Young Children, edited by Joy. D. Osofsky, C. 14, pgs. 260-292. You can also email/call me. Please come for a site visit.

So, where are we now? In all candidness, I am dissatisfied with 0–3 FDTC only because of its limited scope. After almost ten years, we still can only serve 15–20 families. Limited administrative personnel and judicial docket time have never been overcome. Consequently, some babies and parents receive more court time than others on the regular docket. Like most boutique or specialty courts such as FDTC, this may mean a denial of the fundamental right to equal access under the law.

And so, currently I am working to develop a way to better provide intensive judicial oversight and intensive case management, and of front-loading services to all children birth to five, their siblings and their parents in my jurisdiction. All juvenile judges in my jurisdiction would be invited to participate. It would have aspects of FDTC but be broader in scope. All types of cases would be included. Where today a family joins FDTC only if the parent so chooses (why don’t babies get to vote?), there would be no choice. These children and their parents would be in a fast-track post-adjudication docket with intensive oversight. Each family would appear in court every two weeks. They need a court process that is about them: babies and their healthy development, a fair chance for parents to get better, meaningful timely hearings, and permanency. Babies can’t wait!

The role of the judge is always a critical factor in juvenile court proceedings. The judge must set a therapeutic tone. The judge must be an empathetic listener and leader. A judge must insist that the team and providers be trained to treat and value each family as one’s own. Remarkable improvement occurs when parents know and feel that they and their children matter. Respect, dignity, patience, encouragement, affirmation with accountability, and compassion help heal the parents and children. They come to us in trauma. We should not and must not add to that trauma. It’s about infants and toddlers having a decent life. It is up to us to support them.



Clinical Work with Traumatized Young Children (Joy D. Osofsky ed., The Guilford Press, 2011)

Publication Development Committee, Victims of Child Abuse Project, Resource Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 1995)


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