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