Dependency Court. Anyone, including the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), may file a petition in court alleging that a child should be a dependent of the state due to abuse, neglect, or because there is no parent, guardian, or custodian capable of adequately caring for the child. These petitions must be verified and contain a statement of facts that constitute a dependency and the names and residence of the parents, if known.
If a court determines that a child is dependent, the court will conduct periodic reviews and make determinations regarding the child's placement, the provision of services by DCYF, compliance of the parents, and whether progress has been made by the parents.
If the parent fails to make progress in curing the parental deficiencies which led to the dependency, or if one of the statutory aggravating factors exist, a termination petition may be filed. Federal law requires that after a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state must file a petition to terminate parental rights unless the child is being cared for by relatives, there is a compelling reason why termination would not be in the best interest of the child, or the state has failed to offer the necessary services to the parent.
If the court finds the statutory grounds for termination are met, the court will terminate the parental rights and the parent will no longer have rights, privileges, or obligations toward the child.
National Baby Court Models. Zero to Three is a national organization dedicated to working on issues related to increasing the well-being of babies and toddlers. The Zero to Three National Infant-Toddler Court Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Zero to Three reports that there are infant-toddler court programs at 99 sites throughout 30 states and of the 680,000 children in foster care in the U.S., 31 percent are age three and younger. Zero to Three also designed the Safe Babies Court Team in 2005, which focuses on reducing trauma and improving how court, child welfare, and child-serving organizations work together to support young children in, or at-risk of entering, the child welfare system.
In Washington State, children under the age of three represent 42 percent of dependency cases filed in 2018. Of all children who entered into care in Washington, 25.6 percent are infants under one year, the second highest rate in the country.
Best for Babies Program. The Pierce County Juvenile Court operates the Best for Babies Program which is a court-based program designed to ensure that infants and toddlers entering foster care receive support and services to help ensure safety, wellbeing, and an environment that supports early brain development, a Safe Babies Court Team approach. The Best for Babies Program started in 2016, and ensures the needs of infants and toddlers in dependency are addressed through:
The Legislature finds there is an urgent need to provide greater supports to young children and their families involved in Washington's child welfare system. The Legislature also finds that early childhood court programs minimize the impact of past trauma and prevents future trauma for young children and their families in the child welfare system by providing timely, research-based, and trauma informed interventions. Statewide standards are necessary to the quality and accountability of research-based interventions of early childhood court programs. Additionally, the Legislature finds that the administrative office of the courts has secured funding for the first year of the early childhood court program, to support their evaluation efforts.
Early Childhood Court Program. A superior court may establish an early childhood court program (EECP) to serve the needs of infants and toddlers under the age of three, who are dependents. If an child turns three while in the program, the child and their family continue to participate in the program. If a superior court creates an EECP, it is to incorporate the following core components into the program:
Training Requirements. Judges of the superior court judicial districts with ECCPs are to adopt local rules directing programs. The local court rules are to include a requirement that all judicial officers hearing cases in ECCPs:
The Administrative Office of the Courts. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is to administer the certification of training requirements. Pursuant to available funding, the AOC is to evaluate the ECCPs to ensure the quality, accountability, and fidelity of the programs' evidence-based treatment. Evaluations are to be posted on AOC's website. AOC may provide, or contract for the provision of, training and technical assistance related to program services, consultation and guidance for difficult cases, and ongoing training for court teams.
Any currently operating program may have a reasonable period of time to adjust to the requirements of this Act.
The program is limited to children under the age of three, although they may stay in the program if they enter before the age of three. The program is limited to dependent children. Language is added to the intent section regarding funding for the first year and going forward. Existing programs have a reasonable period of time to meet the requirements of this act.
The committee recommended a different version of the bill than what was heard. PRO: This bill provides the framework for superior courts to adopt ECCPs, promoting the emotional well-being of the infants and toddlers being a top priority. There will be less anxiety and stress for both the children and the parents. Permanency will be achieved in a more timely manner, which is better for everyone involved and saves money. Infants and toddlers are overrepresented in dependencies. Washington has the second highest rate of dependency children under the age of one in the country. COVID has threatened the stability of families—this will help everyone navigate the dependency process in a way that is more engaging and supportive of families. Washington is considered a leader in early education policies based on science and research. There is a program in Pierce County, also modeled after the Zero to Three national model. Adopting this state-wide model will help this model expand, and help with private and local funding efforts. This model incorporates the voice of those with lived experience in the child welfare system. Some parents never had a chance to parent, the increased communication and family involvement this model emphasizes will change this. Early exit from dependency means better outcomes and lower costs.
PRO: This bill addresses childhood needs and makes financial sense. Estimate this would provide $14,000 in savings per family served and exceeds per family costs by 64 percent. Longer term public savings should be substantially higher. This program is nationally recognized. Initial spending to launch three cohorts in Washington has been secured. Additional Health Resources and Services Administration funding is likely to be available.