MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) — It wasn’t entirely a smooth road to recovery, but after investing nearly 300 days in rehabilitative services, a woman who had long struggled with substance abuse issues was reunited with her baby late last month.

The woman was among two people who graduated from Rutherford County’s Safe Baby Court on May 24. The court has helped reunite 13 mothers and fathers with their young children since it first began operating in June 2020.

While there are many other Safe Baby Courts scattered throughout the United States, and around 14 in Tennessee, the court in Rutherford County is the only one that focuses solely on cases where children are placed with relatives while their parents work to regain custody.

“This is really an underserved population in the child welfare system. There’s a lot of eyes on foster kids and kids in foster care, but there’s also this subset where children are removed from parents and placed with a relative and they’re not in foster care,” said Carrie Niederhauser, Safe Baby Court Coordinator for Rutherford County.

Oftentimes, Niederhauser said relatives acting as caregivers need more support than they can get on their own. In the Safe Baby Court, that support can look like assistance with rental payments or even just help repairing a car.

“So, alongside getting mom and dad the treatment that they need, we’re also helping those caregivers because we don’t want those kids to go into foster care,” Niederhauser said. “The whole reason around this program is to keep kids with relatives or their parents.”

How the Safe Baby Court works

The concept for a Safe Baby Court was pioneered by a judge in Miami in the 1990s and was later adopted statewide in Tennessee in 2018 after legislation was passed to help address rising incidences of child abuse, neglect and endangerment.

Most of the cases in Rutherford County’s Safe Baby Court begin with a parent who is struggling with substance abuse. Niederhauser said the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) gets involved on day one if a child is born substance exposed.

Any case that meets criteria, including that the child must be 0 to 3 years old, is referred to the Safe Baby Court. Niederhauser said the court focuses on that age group because it is considered as a critical window of attachment and bonding for infants.

“We want them connected with moms and dads versus the child welfare system (because) currently with foster care you’re really only guaranteed to have four hours a month (of visitation),” she said. “And to think about that in the life of a baby, that’s not much time.”

Fewer visitations and less bonding time could lead to difficulties in the event of that family being reunited later in life, Niederhauser said. The program is voluntary, but once a family agrees, the court immediately begins working with them to see what services they need.

After meeting with Judge Travis Lampley, who presides over the Safe Baby Court, they develop a plan for their recovery and reunification. That can include substance abuse disorder treatment, parenting classes, counseling, supervised visitations and other recovery services.

“A lot of our families have grown up not receiving their own proper care as a child, so they’re not really sure how to take care of their children,” Niederhauser said. “So, addressing those issues as well as just environmental stuff like housing, jobs, transportation, all the barriers that our families have that it’s hard to get your child back if you can’t address all those basic needs.”

From treatment to reunification

Niederhauser said the specialized team continues meeting with parents each month to track their progress until they are ready to be reunited with their children. Those who graduated last month both invested nearly 200 to 300 days in rehabilitative services.

When one of the graduates first started the program, she had zero visitation with her older son because of her struggles with substance abuse. Then, after jumping into a treatment plan, Niederhauser said she was able to turn her life around.

“She was with us for about nine months, and she has been in treatment the whole time so she could maintain her sobriety,” Niederhauser said. “In doing all of that she not only regained custody of her baby, but she rebuilt that relationship with her son’s father.”

However, Niederhauser said the road to recovery is not always linear, and like many people recovering from substance abuse, she did face a relapse along the way. In those cases, she said the court takes a more rehabilitative approach than punitive.

“What we try to teach them is substance use is not a straight line. Once you stop, doesn’t mean you’re going to stop forever,” Niederhauser said. “Doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a bump in the road, but if you do, what’s your relapse plan? What can you do with your children to make sure they’re safe?”

No one knows that better than Safe Baby Court Certified Peer Specialist Amberly Chapman, who also battled substance abuse and experienced DCS involvement. In a news release following the recent graduation, Chapman said she is “so proud” of the hard work of their graduates.

“I can relate to them in a way that only one with personal experience could and be proof that there is life after addiction and DCS involvement,” she said. “We are so proud of our recent graduates and all of the hard work they put into themselves and the love and dedication they have for their children.”

‘Better outcomes are possible’

It doesn’t always end in “sunshine and roses,” Niederhauser said, but in a majority of cases, the court is able to make an “improvement somewhere within the family unit.”

With 13 success stories where parents have been reunited with their children and remained sober, another 15 have been permanently placed with their relatives, rather than sent into foster care.

“The situations vary with that,” Niederhauser said. “Mom and dad sometimes are very young and they’re not ready to parent, and that’s OK. We want them to have that ability to say, ‘I can’t do this right now, but I know that grandma or grandpa or aunt or uncle can,’ and try to rebuild that relationship.”

Every instance where a child is kept within their family unit is considered a success in the Safe Baby Court. In a news release, Lampley said the additional support offered to families in Safe Baby Court has proven that “better outcomes are possible.”

“We have seen so many months of sobriety achieved, family relationships repaired, reunification, life-skills learned, employment and housing obtained, education achieved, legal issues resolved, and so many more positive achievements,” he said.

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The state is planning to add eight more Safe Baby Courts across Tennessee, which Niederhauser said is “good news” for other families who may need similar support services where they are not yet available.

“I know there’s a lot of struggles within the Department of Children’s Services right now, so us being able to step in and really support the families and get their questions answered, make sure that their assessments get completed on time, I think that’s a really huge part of this as well,” she said.