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A Scientific Approach to Child Custody

Every day, juvenile dependency courts across the country are filled with parents who have neglected, abused, abandoned or mistreated their children. To protect these children, the dependency court judge will often separate the child from the parent -- sometimes temporarily with a relative or in foster care, and sometimes permanently, if the parent cannot take care of the child. In Florida, one judge has turned to science to help make these difficult custody decisions. NPR's Michelle Trudeau reports.

As the presiding judge for the Miami-Dade County Dependency Court, Cindy Lederman is all too familiar with the cycle of abuse and neglect that can trap some families. Take for example a young, shy 18-year-old girl whom we'll refer to as Katrina (not her real name). Katrina first came before Lederman's court eight years ago. Back then, Katrina and her six brothers and sisters were the victims of neglect.

"There was no food. It was filthy," Lederman recalls. "It was just one of the most extreme cases of neglect I've ever seen."

Katrina's mother eventually lost custody of all seven children. Then three years ago, Katrina returned to Lederman's court -- this time as a 15-year-old mother charged with neglecting her own baby boy. She'd been sexually abused and did not know who the baby's father was.

"This case to me was symbolic of the dependency court population," Lederman says. "It was symbolic of the problems, the hopelessness, the frustration. Here it was, an entire family -- extreme neglect. And the thought that under my watch this would go to yet another generation and there was nothing I could do to stop it, it was almost as if -- why should I even do this job? I can't bear to do this job under those circumstances."

Then a serendipitous circumstance occurred. At a conference, Lederman met Dr. Joy Osofsky of Louisiana State University, a leading expert in early child development. Osofsky became Lederman's tutor, mentor and colleague, guiding the judge through the emotional world of babies.

Normally, Lederman says, juvenile dependency courts only hear from children age five and older who can speak about their situations at home. That system, she says, overlooks the needs of infants and toddlers.

"We never asked about them. We assumed they were OK," Lederman says.

But new research showed Lederman that over half of the babies who come before dependency court have significant cognitive, language and developmental delays stemming from the neglect and mistreatment they've experienced. The judge became convinced her court must focus on these youngest ones, because they're now the largest group of children in the child welfare system.

"My job is to change human behavior, and I can't do that with a law degree," Lederman says. "I can't do that alone. I can't do that without a multi-disciplinary team."

With Osofsky's help, Lederman launched the Miami Safe Start Initiative, an offering of some of the most innovative intervention programs for young mothers and infants in the dependency-court setting today. Recognized by child welfare experts as "pioneering", the Lederman programs are court-initiated, court-administered and aimed at helping babies and toddlers promptly, as soon as they come into the dependency court system.

The initiative offers parent-support services including transportation, school and job placement, developmental screenings for all infants and toddlers and the first court-based Early Head Start program in the country.

But the centerpiece of the court's initiative consists of 25 weeks of intensive, one-on-one therapy between mothers and their babies. During that time, therapists work with individual mothers and children to encourage healthy, nurturing interactions that are the basis of the mother-infant attachment bond. Osofsky's research has shown that a mother's neglect can tear that bond, creating long-term psychological problems for the child.

Osofsky's research has also found significant declines in neglect and abuse by mothers in therapy. Their babies were assessed as being less withdrawn, depressed and angry after spending six months with their moms in therapy. Research results like these are vitally important for Lederman in her deliberations about a child's future.

Lederman's program has already led to one success story. Following the recommendation of a court-assigned therapist, Lederman has decided to reunite Katrina with her child.

"This is not a silver bullet," Lederman says of her intervention program. "It's not going to work for every family. The test case was Katrina's case. I just couldn't bear for everyone in that family to fail. And I think there's been a breakthrough."

Special thanks to producers Jane Greenhalgh of NPR and Peggy Mears of Brainchild Productions for their contributions to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michelle Trudeau began her radio career in 1981, filing stories for NPR from Beijing and Shanghai, China, where she and her husband lived for two years. She began working as a science reporter and producer for NPR's Science Desk since 1982. Trudeau's news reports and feature stories, which cover the areas of human behavior, child development, the brain sciences, and mental health, air on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.