Miami Judge Teaches Troubled Parents How to Interact With Tots

In the time it takes you to watch "Good Morning America" -- just two hours -- 10 children will have been removed from their homes because their parents cannot care for them properly. And every day in the United States, 129 children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

It is shocking statistics like these that made Cindy Lederman, a family court judge in Miami, determined to do something. Lederman came up with a program that, she says, makes for better parents, safer children and stronger families.

"I see children come in because they've been abused by their parents," Lederman said. "I watch the children grow up. The children have their own babies, and they do to their babies just what their parents did to them, and the cycle never ends."

After decades of witnessing this vicious cycle, Lederman decided to put her law books aside and instead turn to the science of early brain development. In doing this, she learned that babies and young children who are raised by abusive or negligent parents experience extreme stress and even acute depression.

One experiment, the still-face experiment, illustrates the effect neglect can have on a baby. In the experiment, a mother interacts normally with her baby, who smiles, gestures and babbles in response. Then the mother turns away. When she turns back to face the child, she presents a totally still face, showing no emotion and refusing to interact.

The baby senses very quickly that something's not right. To get her mother to respond, the baby will smile, gesture, even screech. In just two minutes, the baby is in total distress, writhing, crying and turning away in anguish.

"One of the things children learn in the first year of life, particularly the second half of the first year of life, is to form an important relationship with at least one person, maybe more than one person," said Joy Osofsky, a professor and psychiatrist who worked side by side with Lederman in designing an intervention program to help families in distress. "For children who have been taken out of their homes because they have been abused or neglected and put in one or more placements, they don't learn that, and so what you see is a growing inability to trust people."

Abuse and neglect trigger physiological responses, according to Dr. Jack Shonkoff of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard School of Public Health. "When the environment is not safe and protective, when it is violent, when it's unpredictable, when it is abusive, when it is very neglecting, it activates physiological systems that make your stress hormones go up," he said.

Advanced technology has enabled doctors to see these effects of stress on a child's brain. For example, doctors look at brain scans of the temporal lobes, which regulate emotions and important learning functions. The scans of a normal child show lots of activity, while a scan of a child who was severely neglected shows hardly any activity.

But is there any way to combat these effects? The answer lies in the mother-child relationship.

"When it is a parent who has been the maltreating adult, the best thing we can do is to help repair that relationship with that pair," Shonkoff said, "and do everything we can to turn that abusive or neglectful relationship into a more nurturing, stable and protecting relationship."

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