Can giving babies back sooner to parents in drug treatment be best?
Jacey Harris had been to court to fight for her kids before, but this time was different.
While she sought custody of her newborn son during her treatment for methamphetamine addiction and mental health counseling, she got to raise him herself.
And when 8-month-old Jackson Harris went home with her from court Friday, it was for good.
“I am a great parent,” the 33-year-old South Hill woman said last week. “I’m not struggling with my addiction today.”
Harris is the third graduate of what’s being called Pierce County’s “Baby Court.”
The Superior Court docket — technically called the “Best for Babies” program — was started in October in Juvenile Court at Remann Hall. It focuses on getting stability for babies and toddlers in the foster care system, by fast-tracking their reunion with their parents.
Many of those parents, such as Harris, have struggled with substance abuse.
The idea is that the ages up to 3 are critical developmental years, when children need to bond with caregivers.
To facilitate that, Baby Court brings together a judge, social workers, attorneys, child-development experts and others to oversee a child in state custody’s return home.
The team monitors 10 to 20 parents and children at a time, until the parent regains custody from the state at graduation.
In Jackson’s case, he was taken by the state shortly after his birth in December, because Harris used drugs early in her pregnancy. She and Jackson were clean when he was born, she said, but the state removed him from her home.
“That was very traumatizing, that whole weekend,” she remembered. “First thing Monday morning, I said: ‘You know what? I’m doing this thing.’”
She hit the ground running, seeking treatment, and was chosen as a candidate for Baby Court.
That’s how Jackson got to live with her when he was 2 months old, after his mother found clean and sober housing for them.
The state still had custody and oversight while for six months Harris did drug treatment, mental health treatment, parenting classes, drug tests and had monthly meetings with those working on Jackson’s case.
Every 60 days she and Jackson went before a judge who reviewed how they were doing.
She is well situated to talk about Baby Court, because she went through standard custody proceedings previously with her older son and daughter, ages 12 and 8, who were adopted by another family. It’s an open adoption, meaning she and Jackson are able to see them.
One difference between Baby Court and the standard custody hearings: In Baby Court, Harris had the same judge throughout, Superior Court Judge John Hickman.
And Harris felt like he was on her side.
“I felt like he was a part of my circle of supporters,” she said.
Next to footprints of her three children, she has a paper hung on her wall at home with a big “A+,” the grade Hickman gave her at her first review hearing, because he was pleased with her progress.
She was a shining star of Baby Court, but not all parents do so well in the program, or have such happy endings.
Some infants come to court with caregivers who are looking to adopt them.
In a case Hickman reviewed in June, relatives had been caring for the baby since birth. The mother wasn’t in court, and the judge learned she’d recently had to leave drug treatment, because she had a contraband cellphone.
Another case on the June docket involved a father graduating from the program by getting custody of his baby, as the distraught mother watched. Hickman asked whether he could speak with her, and she said: “I have nothing to say to you,” and left the courtroom.
But the happy moments during Baby Court are many, even before graduations.
As Hickman was getting a report in June about a different mother, and how her sobriety from meth and heroin was going, the baby in that case threw a rattle that clunked across the courtroom floor.
“Good throw,” Hickman said, as the pigtailed baby cackled.
Her case was going well.
“My question is, when can we dismiss this thing?” Hickman asked the mom. “I don’t know how much sobriety you have to prove, but the court is convinced this is the real thing.”
There’s a lot of people in Baby Court who make sure that’s the case.
Among Harris’ supporters was Tony Huff, Jackson’s court-appointed advocate. At one point state funding for Jackson’s day care didn’t come through, and Huff helped sort it out.
“He loves this little guy,” Harris said.
There’s also social worker Autumn Smith, who helped hook Jackson up with a crib, high chair and toys.
Another part of Team Jackson is Harris’ attorney, Annette Lukinbill, who represented her throughout Baby Court and fed the infant some chocolate cupcake at Friday’s graduation celebration.
“Let the record reflect,” she joked, that Huff is the only person besides Harris who Jackson lets hold him without a fuss.
It’s not that those people don’t meet throughout a standard custody proceeding, Harris said, but the Baby Court support was different. People on those cases are “more there for you,” she said, and have “more time and energy” for the parent and child.
“Here you have people telling you: ‘You’re doing great. You’re doing awesome,’” she said.
Harris said the anniversary of her sobriety will be in early October. And she plans to enroll in college this winter.
She and her Baby Court team say having Jackson placed with her so early has helped her succeed.
“You get to wake up in the morning and see their face,” Harris said. “It’s fun to day in and day out be able to interact with your child and watch them grow.”
And again for the record: Jackson likes sweet potatoes, carrots and baby puff snacks. He’s starting to crawl.