Over the last two years, the number of children in foster care in Tennessee has jumped more than ten percent, in large part due to the opioid crisis. In Knox County alone, there are over 750 children living in state custody. Safe Baby Court works to protect the youngest children caught in the judicial system by helping them find safe, permanent homes as quickly as possible. But the program doesn’t focus on children alone, it also provides support for parents struggling with addiction and other chronic problems.
Kaki Reynolds, the program coordinator, says most of the time when people walk into juvenile court, they’re given a list of things they need to do and are told to report back in six months. “At Safe Baby Court,” she explains, “we get that list and then every month we have a team meeting with everybody at the table, the attorney, the providers, DCS, us, the parents, and sometimes the children are there.”
While there is extra monitoring and scrutiny involved with Safe Baby Court, there’s also additional help for families. Elizabeth, one of the recent graduates from the program, says Safe Baby Court gave her support when she needed it most. “[I] had a team behind me in Safe Baby Court. Anything I needed they were there for, whether it was just a call, and me talk to them if I was having a bad day, or if I just, you know, was thinking about using that day. They helped me with diapers, formula, they helped me with anything.”
Magistrate Michael Fortune has worked in the juvenile courts for nineteen years. He says he likes the problem solving and creativity he sees in Safe Baby Court. “There’s a lot of brainstorming I feel that’s involved that doesn’t happen in the usual case. And we try to think out of the box and look at it from a different perspective. Is somebody not getting to treatment? Why aren’t they getting to treatment? What’s the problem? We can give you a bus pass, an uber card, we can work things out for you.”
The personal attention and oversight families receive in Safe Baby Court helps accelerate reunification. Children are getting home to their families more quickly than with traditional court. Since January 2018 when the program began, there have already been two graduations with another in the works.
Fortune describes himself as a cheerleader for Safe Baby Court. “I do get excited. Sometimes I feel like I’m the most excited one in the room because it’s such a different approach and a different outcome. I’ve just heard people say they just never thought they would get clean. And this isn’t just some fairy tale or something they see on television. This could really be their lives.”
Knox County’s Safe Baby Court is currently working with twelve families and about thirty children. Funding for the program runs out runs out in 2022.