October 01, 2017

Tennessee Court Supports Infants in the Child Welfare System

Sara Schleicher

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A new court in Davidson County, Tennessee is keeping a close eye over babies who enter the child welfare system. The Davidson County Infant Court, a specialty court focused on infants and toddlers and their families, is led by Judge Melinda Rigsby. CLP spoke with Judge Rigsby to learn more about the court, how it operates, and its approach to meeting the needs of young children and their parents.

How did the Davidson County Infant Court get started? 

The Davidson County Infant Court is a specialty court in Davidson County, Tennessee, that is dually focused on ensuring the safety of children ages 0-3 during the removal from their parents and home and placement into the child welfare system. It also provides necessary recovery services to parents to provide a pathway towards reunification. 

The concept of infant courts is not new. The original courts, known as the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Courts, originally found in Louisiana, aim to increase awareness for those who work with maltreated infants and toddlers as well as modify local systems to better court outcomes. The Infant Mental Health Association of Tennessee (AIMHiTN) showed interest in these infant courts and the results they were producing. They found a grant opportunity, put together a work group, drafted a proposal, and were later awarded the grant. Because I had shown interest in the idea, I was contacted during the work group stage and asked to serve as the judicial oversight. From there, the Davidson County Infant Court was created in August 2016 and our first docket was in December of that year. 

Our state legislator has recently showed interest in getting involved with the court, so there has been talk of funding the creation of other courts similar to ours in different regions throughout Tennessee. For now, mine is the only one currently up and going. 

How does the court operate and who are the key participants? 

The Davidson County Infant Court is modeled after the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Courts, which are found nationwide. Representatives from the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Courts have come to train our staff at in Davidson County twice since we first began. Since the court is structured around a multidisciplinary team approach, all players in the court receive continuous training. The team includes, but is not limited to, service providers, caseworkers, as well as all attorneys involved. We invite and encourage all family members who are interested to come be a part of the team meetings so they can also gain a better understanding of what is being done to meet the child’s needs. When it is time for the court date, participants meet in an unstructured, roundtable discussion-like setting, and talk openly about how to best meet the needs of the child to produce the best outcomes possible. 

What kind of services does the court offer parents? 

Davidson County Infant Court serves children ages 0-3 who have been removed from parents and placed into state custody due to a variety of reasons, including parental mental health and homelessness, but the majority are drug related. In Tennessee, opiate usage is prevalent. We feel that opioid addiction is a treatable condition so one of our primary focuses is supporting the parents’ recovery. We emphasize finding the underlying reason that the parent is in this predicament and address the problem at its source. These parents work with our service providers, to receive the treatment services they need so their children can return home and we can reunite these families. Services include mental health care, parenting classes, and in-home treatments, as well as inpatient care at residential facilities. 

Our court has also worked with Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which has offered mothers job support and vocational rehab as well as the Department of Children’s Services, which has assisted mothers by giving referrals for housing and adult education options. We also work with providers that offer services for domestic violence victims and victims of sex trafficking, since we often see a correlation between these victims and opioid users. We do not set a time limit to providing these services; we want to be there for as long as they need us to be there. 

How does the court assist temporary caregivers? 

We have really seen how these babies can suffer if they are not treated appropriately during this very formative time. So, while ensuring the parent is getting the help that he or she needs, we also are largely focused on seeing that the child’s needs are being met. As a court, we ensure the child’s caregivers, such as a foster family or relative, are giving the child the support, comfort, and love they need. Services provided to the temporary caregivers include ongoing training so they are better educated on adverse childhood experiences and how they affect infants. 

What kind of services does the court offer to the child? 

Our main focus is always to ensure the child is properly cared for. We do so by aiding parents and temporary caregivers, which helps the children. We also pay close attention to the individual child’s needs. While the temporary caregiver is caring for the child, we seek to maintain as much contact between the parent and baby as possible. This is so when it is time to reunite the transition is not as difficult for the child. In some cases, such as with in-home treatment and treatment in residential facilities, the mother is able to receive mental health and drug treatment without being separated from her child. With such treatments, the mother and child are monitored together.

We also recognize that children are very aware of and responsive to their surroundings. Although they may not know the difference between being in their birth mother’s arms versus a foster mother’s arms, they are still aware that someone is there holding them. If they’ve been used to certain smells or voices, we try to ensure the foster mom or temporary caregiver creates a sense of consistency for the child, such as by using the same laundry detergent as the birth mother, playing recordings of the birth mother reading a book to the child, or giving the child a blanket that has his or her birth mother’s scent on it. Consistency reduces trauma for the child. 

What is your court’s typical caseload?

We currently have 10 cases on the docket since we are a newer court. According to studies by the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Court project, the greatest amount of cases you want to have on the docket at a time so that you are still able to adequately manage them all is 19. 

How is Davidson County and your court addressing cases involving Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome?

Because so many of our cases have involved drugs, opiates being the most prevalent, we have had quite a bit of NAS babies come through our courtroom. [Neonatal abstinence syndrome is a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive opiate drugs while in the mother’s womb. See Medline Plus]. Members of the Department of Infant and Mental Health work to ensure these children are receiving services through the Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS). Services provided include child development services, consisting of speech, language, and physical and occupational therapy, as well as regular screenings to measure the progress of the child’s development. 

Has your court taken preventative steps to limit cases involving infants? 

Right now, since the court is new, it is very reactive, overseeing cases as they are brought to us. Our preventative efforts are geared towards addressing babies’ issues now and throughout their childhood and young adulthood. We have an Infant Court Coordinator who is gathering statistics and data on cases heard in our infant court, with a goal of having more preventative practices in the future. 

I have been working in juvenile court for about 20 years, first as a prosecutor and now as a judge. During this time, I saw some kids that came in as teenagers in juvenile delinquency cases were the same children that came into court as neglect victims during their younger years. I saw mothers of these neglected or abused children who were in foster care as a child, or who were the children I prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court prior to serving as a judge. We recognize that adverse childhood experiences shape the way the child is going to be in adulthood. If we can ensure these children are properly cared for from the start, and if we can teach them how to address the trauma associated with being in the system in a healthy manner, without turning to drugs or crime, then maybe we can break this cycle. We’ve been trying to fix these issues on the back end, providing a temporary band-aid. Let’s get to the very beginning. Let’s try to get to that baby now. 

How do your actions to help families differ on and off the bench? 

On the bench, we have focused on providing well-rounded services to not only the parent in their recovery but also to the temporary caregivers and the child while considering their developmental needs. 

Off the bench, I have gone to speak to groups about what our court is doing, which has resulted in an increased interest in these courts statewide and a desire to create more courts similar to ours. 

How do you encourage parents who come to your court?

One idea we are working on implementing is the “Parent Partner Program,” which is an idea inspired by the ZERO TO THREE Safe Babies Courts. A Parent Partner is someone who has previously been through the system, can act as an emotional support for the parent, and has gone through the recovery and reunification processes. Our court coordinator is currently reaching out to potential Parent Partners to get this program implemented in our court. 


Sara Schleicher, communications intern, ABA Center on Children and the Law, summer 2017, is a senior at Syracuse University studying political science and child and family policy. 



See the ABA Center on Children and the Law's Infants and Toddlers Project for practical resources for the child welfare legal community on addressing the needs of infants and toddlers in the child welfare system.