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Children in the courts: expanding early childhood courts

August 24, 2022

By Joy Keller

With the spike in drug overdoses during the pandemic, early childhood courts (ECCs) are also having a second wave. ECCs, also called baby courts, infant-toddler courts, and safe babies court teams (SBCTs), among others, are all labels to describe problem-solving courts that focus on improving and expediting evidence-based services for young children involved in the child welfare system. An ECC includes establishing a comprehensive, integrated, and coordinated systems approach to help families.

The ECC concept began in the 1990s when Florida received a grant to study what early intervention might accomplish, based on emerging brain science regarding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are childhood events occurring in a family or social environment and causing harm or distress. Infants and toddlers (under age 5) in the child welfare system are at extraordinarily high risk for “developmental delays, non-optimal attachment relationships, trauma, and toxic stress that can affect their adjustment and well-being -- often, tragically, for a lifetime.” A 2020 research study of all Florida’s ECCs found that ECCs provide much needed support which reduces repeat maltreatment and trauma. A critical component of ECCs is child-parent psychotherapy. Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit began an ECC for children three and under in February 2022. According to ECC Program Coordinator Dina Mezza:

“Parents participating in our new ECC have shared they value being part of a multidisciplinary team focused on supporting their families’ needs. They have also shared how much they have learned from circle of security parenting and child-parent psychotherapy. These are two specialized interventions focused on infant/toddler mental health and social-emotional development, increasing parent attunement to children’s needs and meeting those needs, and strengthening bonding and attachment between children and parents.”

Results from NCSC’s ECC report identified benefits including:

  • Improved safety
  • Faster time to permanency
  • Preserved family relationships
  • Placement stability
  • Racial equity
  • Increased service delivery
  • Cost savings

The ECC parents and caregivers in the Center for Court Innovation’s August 2021 survey also identified improvements in:

  • Increased knowledge about early childhood, including development, trauma, and the importance of attachment to caregivers;
  • Improved relationships between caregivers and the children; and
  • Supported navigation of the child welfare process.

Beginning in 2005 many jurisdictions began adopting the ECC initiative with approximately 100 ECCs in nearly 30 states as of January 2020. Due to the pandemic, state courts are expanding ECCs, as have Washington in 2021, Michigan in March 2022, and South Carolina in July 2022. Washington developed standards of practice that included racial equity, parent voice, child-parent relationships, and safe reunification at the center. Tennessee’s 2022 report includes perspectives from the bench: “Today, we are a stronger and much more efficient program than we were prior to the pandemic.”

Is your state starting or expanding ECCs? Share your experiences with us at or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.