Wearing a pink frock and an upright pigtail, the toddler tapped a pen on the courtroom table and babbled a few syllables of her own while Family Court Judge Christine Kuriyama addressed her parents.
The 14-month-old was perched on her father’s lap while her mother kept an eye on her baby sister during their monthly appearance at Zero to Three Court, a program of Oahu’s Family Court in Kapolei.
"It keeps us out of trouble," the father, who sported a red cap and a flashy stud earring, said after the hearing. "It helps make us stay on the right path. Because the judge doesn’t play. She’s serious."
The court focuses on children neglected or abused during their most vulnerable years, from birth until age 3. It fast-tracks their cases toward safe, permanent placement, aware that every day counts in these early stages so crucial for emotional attachment, brain growth and learning.
"Our cases involve mental health issues, substance abuse, domestic violence," said Kuriyama, who oversees Zero to Three Court. "We want the infants and toddlers in a safe, stable environment sooner rather than later."
The court assesses every aspect of a child’s development, arranges services to help overcome the trauma and finds the healthiest, long-term placement for the infant or toddler. It helps parents address their shortcomings, and if they cannot be resolved, the court terminates parental rights and places the child with fit and willing relatives or other adoptive parents.
"Protecting the child’s physical safety is critical, but equally important is the social, emotional and cognitive development of each child," said Faye Kimura, co-coordinator for the Court Improvement Program at Family Court. "Research shows that the early years are a time when intervention in the way of developmentally appropriate services can dramatically improve the odds for these children."
The young family in this case ended up in Zero to Three Court after the mother visited the doctor while pregnant last year and her urine tested positive for methamphetamine.
Today the mother is fresh from completing a residential drug treatment program, Women’s Way. The father works as a restaurant cook and proudly told the judge that he had completed nine months of clean drug tests.
The couple now has a chance to keep their family together, with guidance from the court, including parenting classes, social services and close supervision.
"We started off not too good," said the father, adding that the judge had been ready to terminate their parental rights. "We were kind of on the bad side." Without the court’s intervention, he said, "we would be lost."
The girls’ mother said Zero to Three Court has taught her how to be a parent, something no one else had shown her.
"They work with you very closely," she said. "They provide a lot of support. I learned things I never knew about being a parent."
In the first years of life, babies need to form a strong relationship of trust with at least one caring adult in order to thrive, research shows. Neglect and abuse can literally alter the wiring of the brains of the youngest children, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Multiple foster placements add stress and uncertainty for babies.
"In a typical foster case, the child moves sometimes frequently during the course of a case," Kimura said. "We try to make sure our infants are in the right place very early on in the case. It’s really important for infants to have a secure emotional attachment to the caregiver. If they don’t get that at an early age, then they are really at risk of developing a lot of psychological problems later on."
Zero to Three Court has 14 active cases and has placed 24 infants and toddlers in permanent homes so far. Seventeen were adopted, and seven were reunified with a parent. Kids got to their ultimate placement nine months faster, on average, than in regular court.
"The normal track in dependency cases takes about two years," Kuriyama said. "We try to do it in one. If there are no appropriate placements with relatives, then we look outside the family."
The program tries to break the cycle of neglect and abuse that often reaches across generations. More than a quarter of the parents involved in Zero to Three were formerly in foster care themselves, and more than half had substance abuse problems.
Launched in 2009, the Honolulu program had been funded through federal earmarks for a national nonprofit organization, Zero to Three, but that money source dried up last November after Congress phased out earmarks. Proponents have asked the state Legislature to help keep it going.
Senate Bill 815, introduced by Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, would allot $130,000 for Zero to Three Court for each of the next two years. It is in conference committee this week. If approved, the money would go toward emergency housing aid, a secure opening at a residential substance abuse treatment facility to accommodate a mother and child, coordinator’s transport to visit families, creation of a parenting coaching site and training of court team members.
Attorney Leslie Maharaj, who represents parents, said the court helps them focus on what’s best for the child and accept the situation even in cases where they lose custody for good.
"They come to the realization that they are not able to take care of the child, and they are comfortable with the situation the child is in," she said. "They’ve been able to reach that agreement instead of going through a painful trial and having the decision made."
Altogether, Hawaii had 509 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2012, with 299 of them involving children from birth to age 3, according to the Department of Human Services. Zero to Three Court can help just 15 of them at a time.
At a recent court session, a pair of grandparents came before the judge, ready to adopt their grandson, whose parents were deemed unfit. Grandpa gently patted the boy and whispered to him during the hearing.
When it was time to go, the once-shy youngster curled his fingers and said "bye-bye" to the judge. Then he reached over and gave his social worker a high five.