KINGMAN - For Tonya Ford, it's all about education.
Ford knows that unless the professionals who work with infants and toddlers removed from their homes for neglect and abuse receive adequate training, they won't be able to effectively reach the families who need their help.
Ford is coordinator of the Court Team for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers, which monitors case plans and supervises placement when children 5 years or younger are sent to foster care.
"We have a huge problem here," said Ford. "We have 155 children in foster care in Mohave County right now, and that's too many. That number is much higher than last year. We also have serious drug usage and high rates of domestic violence and poverty. To me, this says we need everyone in the community to get involved and we need programs to address these problems."
To combat the situation, Ford schedules monthly training for the court team, whose members include representatives from Mohave Child Protective Services, Mohave Mental Health and Court Appointed Special Advocate, as well as child advocates and attorneys. This week, about 200 members met at the Mohave County Administration Building for a one-day seminar by Ira Chasnoff, president of the Children's Research Triangle and a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago.
Chasnoff talked about the connection between drugs, alcohol, pregnancy and infant mental health. His presentations focused on the maternal-infant relationship of women with histories of chemical dependency, as well as early intervention strategies that promote neonatal development and enhance safety for the unborn child.
Chasnoff said alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs used by a pregnant woman readily cross the placenta and can produce structural and functional changes in the developing fetal brain. These children also often suffer from high rates of violence in the home and endure significant trauma early in childhood.
Ford said the court team also presents a two-day symposium each October that draws about 350 participants and includes information on early childhood development, drug and alcohol abuse, foster care and other issues.
Ford said the seminars encourage court team members dealing with difficult situations and give them positive feedback.
"I love these seminars and there's an 'aha!' moment in every one of them," said Lenore Knudtson, an attorney and child advocate in Kingman who attended Chasnoff's presentation. "They refine our knowledge, empower the system and help us move closer from concept to practice."
Knudtson said it is imperative to develop programs to reach all children, especially those who are vulnerable and most likely to stay in the cycle and be most taxing to the welfare system. Knudtson said these children are least likely to come to the attention of professionals until they begin school, which means any opportunity to help them at an early age will be missed.
The court team, which serves Kingman, Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, was formed four years ago to coordinate services related to the health, development and social needs of vulnerable young children and their families. The team is lead by Mohave County Superior Court Judge Richard Weiss, and is funded by a grant of $400,000 this year from the La Paz/Mohave Regional Partnership Council.
The partnership council is overseen by First Things First, a statewide agency created by Arizona voters in 2006. Funding comes from an 80-cent per pack increase on tobacco products, which provides money for programs in 31 regions of the state that give children the necessary tools to begin school healthy and ready to succeed.
Last year, First Things First distributed $402 million in the state, with the La Paz/Mohave Regional Partnership Council receiving about $4.2 million for programs ranging from pre-kindergarten scholarships to home visitation services.
Since its inception, said Ford, the Court Team for Maltreated Infants and Toddlers has implemented a number of system improvements to better support vulnerable children and their families involved in the child welfare system, especially since budget cuts have severely affected available resources. Those include specific days set aside by the presiding juvenile court judge to hear dependency cases involving young children in baby court.
Also, said Ford, case managers from Mohave County Child Protective Services and Mohave Mental Health have been assigned to work on the needs of children ages birth to 5 years. Also, specialized training is provided to foster parents and caregivers to help address the unique social and emotional needs of those children. As a result of the programs and trainings, said Ford, parents are engaging more readily in their case plans and the court team is seeing a shorter time until these at-risk youngsters go to permanent homes.
According to the 2012 Needs and Assets Report by the La Paz/Mohave Regional Partnership Council, reports of child abuse and neglect have been increasing across the state and have gone up since 2010 in Mohave County. A report by the Arizona Department of Economic Security for April 2010 to March 2012 shows there were 534 reports of child abuse and neglect in Mohave County from April to September 2010.
Those reports increased to 556 from October 2010 to March 2011, jumped to 641 from April to September 2011 and dropped to 612 from October 2011 to March 2012. During those same reporting periods, La Paz County had 64 reports for the first period, 49 for the second, 75 for the third and 72 for the fourth period.
Howard Weiske, who serves on the court team's board of directors, said members review the cases of about 400 infants and toddlers a year placed in court custody to see if they are progressing toward a permanent home. Weiske said the reviews document whether children are living in a safe environment and are having their educational, mental, social and health needs met. The reviews are sent to superior court judges in both La Paz and Mohave counties.
"This is what makes these seminars so important," said Weiske. "They give us more and better tools to evaluate these children. By participating, we increase our sensitivity and reduce our frustration by learning what to look for. There are certain characteristics and trends that show how to measure progress, and how well we use them is directly proportional to the future success of these children."
Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2013
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Tonya is a remarkable person to have on the court team. She goes above and beyond for the innocent ones who do not have a voice in our community. For many, many infants and children she is a blessing in disguise.