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."
To do just that, Lederman assembled a court team of mental health professionals and caseworkers. Now, young mothers who come through her court aren't just lectured to about parenting. Instead, they're referred to the University of Miami's Linda Ray Center, a therapeutic center not far from the courthouse. First, they're carefully observed interacting with their children. Then, over the course of numerous sessions with a therapist, they learn to respond, talk and play with their babies.
Mothers Wendy and Jean, who both preferred to only give their first names, were referred to the Linda Ray Center, where they have worked hard to improve their relationships with their children.
"They teach you how to discipline, how to feed them, how to take care of them," Wendy said. "It's really good for you to read to them and talk to them. Their brain expands."
Jean, who admitted that she found her son's crying "frustrating" before, now knows how to react when he's fussy. She has learned how to pick up on his cues, to engage in conversation, to show him how much she loves him.
Follow-up data on the mothers who have completed the intervention program shows that 100 percent of these families have been reunified and that there has not been a single report of further abuse or neglect -- a success rate that is almost unheard of in the juvenile justice system.
"We're going to be able to change the course of their lives," Lederman said. "We can solve some of the problems that have resulted from the maltreatment and abuse immediately so that they can lead productive lives."
To replicate the court team's model in courts across the country, legislation has been introduced in Congress. Called the Safe Babies Act (Senate bill 627 and House of Representatives bill 1082), it is a bipartisan piece of legislation that now has 26 co-sponsors. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., are lead sponsors of the bill.
For more information on the court team's project and on the Safe Babies Act, go to www.zerotothree.org