A family court with a holistic approach

BY SHANA MEDEL
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO – Kimberly Chimber only had one thought on her mind: getting her girls back.

Kimberly Chimber, center, plays a “Frozen’’ themed game with her daughters, 4-year-old Sophia, left, and 18-month-old Shaylee, in their new Orlando home.
(SHANA MEDEL/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

It was November 2015, and her 18-month-old daughter Shaylee had just been taken away by the Department of Children and Family Services because of her drug use. A year before, 4-year-old Sophia had been removed from the home.

Rather than continue her case in the dependency court system, which deals with incidents of child mistreatment, Chimber enrolled in an Orange County initiative dubbed B.A.B.Y. Court.

A team effort
Also known as Building A Better You, the program aims to provide a stable upbringing for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents. A court team works to reunify the kids with their parents or place them with a permanent guardian.

The program provides families with weekly psychotherapy sessions, increased visitation for parents and children and parenting classes.

“The added bonus was I got to see my kids more,” said Chimber, 33, who will finish the program in August but already has her girls back after completing parenting classes and demonstrating a stable home and steady job. “It can be overwhelming since they’re so many people involved, but it’s all for the best.”

Critical stages
The long-term goal, as put by Circuit Judge Alicia Latimore, is to prevent children from repeating cycles of abuse.

“If we’re able to address the trauma early on, then we’ve minimized future issues,” Latimore said.

“Children are going to grow up to have healthier families and be healthier parents.”

Findings conclude that the most critical stage to a child’s mental health development is the first five years of life. If left untreated, abuse can lead to lifelong problems, including anxiety, emotional and behavioral problems, substance abuse and depression, according to research conducted by the program’s court teams.

Latimore is a familiar face to the families involved in the program — especially the children.

Sophia and Shaylee, who attend the court check-in proceedings every month, have come to know her as “the lady with the lollipops.”

Launched in 2015
The Early Childhood Court of Florida launched B.A.B.Y. Court in April 2015, prompting courthouses across the Sunshine State to follow suit.

Since Latimore helped implement the Orange County program in October 2015, nine children ages 5 and under have been placed in a permanent home and nine cases are underway, said Ashley Foster, the program’s community coordinator.

Services continue once the court team finds a suitable caregiver.

The Chimber girls, who were reunified with their mother in late January and early February of this year, will still receive aftercare support and attend weekly parent-child psychotherapy for six months.

‘Here to help’
Latimore said traditional dependency family court takes a toll on those involved, causing them to lose sight of their mission.

“It doesn’t work for the family,” said Latimore, who is one of 18 judges administering the alternative program in Florida. “When we stop counting how many times the parent messed up or made a mistake, we can count how many times we have an opportunity to help them be successful.

We’re here to help them, not to go against them.”

Children participating in court-sponsored family counseling initiatives in other states achieve permanency three times faster than those in dependency court proceedings and exit the foster care system earlier, which generates short-term savings of $7,300 per child, according to a 2011 study.

Stable environment
Latimore said B.A.B.Y. Court has helped stop families from re-entering the child welfare system, which isn’t the case for families in traditional dependency court.

Without funding from the Community-Based Care of Central Florida, a nonprofit organization that oversees child-welfare services, foster care and adoption, the program may not have been possible, Latimore said.

However, since the average cost per child is $10,000, Orange County can only manage 10 cases at a time.

Chimber will finish the whole battery of classes in August, and now has a stable job working at IHOP four to five days a week. She’s raising Sophia and Shaylee in a two-bedroom home in Orlando.

“It strengthened our relationship,” Chimber said. “I’ve always had a good bond with my kids, and I never lost it.”

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