New “Safe Baby Court” program coming to Columbia

The program looks to put children in nurturing environments while giving parents resources to make their homes a better place

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) —A new program aiming to help young parents who have been charged with abuse and neglect is coming to Richland County.

The “Safe Baby Court” program looks to have these parents work with community members to get the help they need, all while their young children are temporarily in foster care. 

Kerrie Schnake with the South Carolina Infant Mental Health Association (SCIMHA) says young children are more likely to struggle with mental health if they grow up in an abusive home.

“The first three years of life really encompass the most critical phase of brain development, and it’s during that time that the foundation is being laid for how a child perceives the world around him or her,” Schnake said.

Unlike previous initiatives which would remove children from the home for a longer period of time, a new program, known as the “Safe Baby Court” program, would bring in more community members to get parents the help they need so they can provide a safer home for their child. 

“The Safe Baby Court team brings the family into the planning, they all work together, the family and the community members, led by the judge, the attorneys, guardians ad litem, all the key players are there. They come up with a plan together so the family can succeed,” Schnake said.

Other organizations taking part in the program include the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS), Department of Mental Health (DMH), Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), Guardian At Litem, the SC Judicial System, and the Department of Children’s Advocacy. 

Michael Leach, the Director of DSS, said in a statement to ABC Columbia:

“We are most grateful to be participating in this pilot and happy to see stakeholders from DAODAS, Dept of Mental Health, SCIMHA, Guardian Ad Litem, the Dept of Children’s Advocacy and the SC Judicial System working together to bring this holistic model to South Carolina.”

Richland County, Spartanburg County, and Laurens County are the first in South Carolina to participate the program.

Schnake says that in other states, parents who go through the program have gotten the help they need, and have provided a safer place for their children once they come home.

“The results show from research studies that there are far fewer instances where the family is engaged again and again with the child welfare system since they’ve been through the Safe Baby Court because all the infrastructure is provided to help the family succeed not just in that moment, but going forward, they have the resources to support their children in a safe and healthy way,” Schnake said. 

The Safe Baby Court, which is run by the national infant advocacy group Zero to Three, has already been implemented in several states, including Tennessee and Minnesota.

Schnake said it took her multiple attempts to bring the program to South Carolina, but she said thanks to a national grant from Zero to Three and partnerships with state agencies, the program finally got its start in the Palmetto State.

Similar to other court-centric programs like DUI Court or Drug Court, which aim to give people charged with certain crimes a chance to rehabilitate themselves by meeting with a judge and community members, the program has seen lower recidivism rates, and has ended up with more children ending up with their biological family members, as opposed to the traditional foster care system.

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