The Movement Toward Infant-Toddler Courts in Georgia

By GEEARS for Saporta Report 

When a parent of a young child, aged birth through three, enters the legal system with challenges such as substance use or allegations of neglect or abuse, courts have often removed the child from the home, either for foster care or adoption. While this is a tragedy for the parent, there’s growing recognition that such a trauma is also an Adverse Childhood Experience for the child, one that can reverberate through their entire future. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. With a growing acceptance of infant- and toddler-focused specialty courts that work with agencies and community organizations using the trademarked “Safe Babies” approach, more families can experience support and second chances in the legal system, rather than penalties and separation. 

A decades-long movement toward this model has gained traction in Georgia. In the coming months, the Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health at the Georgia Health Policy Center, operating with a five-year grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, will request applications from judges, agencies, community organizations, and collaboratives who want to work together using the Safe Babies approach for families in the judicial system. 

With this approach. . .  

  • Young children spend less time in foster care and have more access to their families while in foster care. These expediencies mean less disruption of critical bonding between parents and their infants and toddlers.
  • Greater efforts are made to reunify families. 
  • Families have access to Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Services, such as Child Parent Psychotherapy, which is tailored to children ages birth through three, as well as other wraparound services that contribute to whole family well-being. 
  • Families will encounter fewer barriers to progress. Courts might meet outside of office hours, for instance, to allow a working parent to participate. They’ll also enlist the help of community partners that range from mental health professionals to car and home repair contractors—all aimed at supporting parents’ efforts to maintain safe and stable homes for their children. 

Judge Peggy Walker presided over her own Infant-Toddler Court for almost three decades in Douglas County and has served in several other government roles, including on Georgia’s Child Welfare Reform Council and on the Georgia Commission on Family Violence. A fierce advocate for the collaboration that fuels Infant-Toddler Courts, Walker says the approach is about to have its moment in Georgia. 

“We finally have an alignment of everything that will get us where we need to be in our infant and toddler work,” she says. 

Judge Walker spoke to us from the Republic of Georgia, where she is mentoring judges on the rights of children. We discussed the history of Infant-Toddler Courts, their potential, and why our state’s judges and others working with the court system should eagerly sign on to join her in this critical work. 

What are Infant-Toddler Courts and how are they different from our current system? 

The origins of these courts was in Florida under the leadership of Judge Cindy Lederman. The focus of that initial grant was around child safety and domestic violence cases. But as the work matured, we broadened the focus of the courts to really look at the well-being of the child. We want ‘Same Place and Same Faces.’ Which means, if we have the ability to keep a child in the home with their parent, that is a better opportunity for that child’s bonding and attachment. Because once we’ve done that separation, once we change where a child sleeps, we have changed that child’s life forever. 

How can a judge create an Infant-Toddler Court?  

An Infant-Toddler Court is very much like a Family Drug Treatment Court or a Mental Health Court. You have a specific focus and you have much more intensive case management and you have much more support for the families to be able to address their issues effectively. It does require more engagement of the judge, it requires more court time, and it involves much more involvement of community and agencies to strengthen those relationships and partnerships. 

Does a judge in an Infant-Toddler Court need training? 

It’s required. You can never effectively be a judge in a specialty court without training. Part of it is learning that you’re doing a different type of motivational engagement. You are building a relationship of trust with a family and you are motivating them to change and you are supporting them and rewarding them as they make this progress. When they have setbacks, you are bridging the gap between the setback and the progress by offering them supportive encouragement, without blaming and shaming and belittling. 

Are judges and other professionals working with Infant-Toddler Courts trained to recognize when factors like poverty and systemic racism have contributed to a parent’s challenges? How does this affect their approach?

Our job is to build support around these families to make reunification possible.  A key factor is rejecting case plans that require independent housing. We are one of the few countries in the world who expect single parents to be able to support themselves and their children, Yes, we need safe, stable housing, but we must recognize that it is likely to be shared. I cannot tell you how many times a caseworker has not approved a home because a child will not have their own room.  My response is this: “I got my own room at 40 when I was divorced.”  I was raised by a single mother caring for my brother, sister and me.  We didn’t have a lot, but we had everything we needed.  Having your own room is not realistic given the cost of housing, food, transportation, etc.  

What we know is that children have better outcomes when they are raised in a safe loving home with their own family.  We must approach these families with respect, honor, and support as our most vulnerable families address difficult barriers such as poverty and racism. Most of us could not survive what these families face every single day. They have great courage and fortitude to keep pushing for the return of their children.

Can you share an Infant-Toddler Court Success story? 

We had a situation with a mother who had previously terminated her rights to the children. Our program coordinator served her again in a pregnancy, where they coordinated medical insurance, substance use treatment, and building a support system. At the time that she gave birth, there was no maltreatment for removal and she was able to successfully parent an infant after having lost rights to her other children. She was willing to come back to a system where she’d had very negative experiences and received the support that she needed. 

What’s your projection for success? 

This is not something that can be done without adequate funding. We have to have political will, we have to have financial support, and we have to have talent. We definitely have the talent and now we’re beginning to build both the political will and the financial support to make this happen. It is a long-term effort and we have to be able to make adaptations where we understand how it works in urban areas, suburban areas and rural Georgia. We have three Georgias, but we are one state. What you get shouldn’t depend on where you live.

I assume your dream is to see the Infant-Toddler Courts adapted all over Georgia? 

Yes, every judge, every attorney who represents children, every guardian ad litem and [Court Appointed Special Advocate] needs to have the training on what is different in infants and toddlers, how important that bonding and attachment is, and when you foster that and improve that, how much you improve safety for that child down the road, as well as permanency. 

It’s important for people to talk to their legislators, both state and federal, about the importance of this work and about the funding of this work. I think if we fail to speak out on it and speak loudly on it, it can get lost.

If you’re a judge, agency, community organization, or collaborative interested in creating or working with an Infant-Toddler Court, please contact Twanna Lashun Nelson or Mitzi Fears at the Georgia Infant-Toddler Court Program at Georgia State University.