Neglected, abused and forsaken, a group of children in Florida is getting a chance their parents never had thanks to Cindy Lederman, a family court judge in Miami Dade County who put her law books aside and turned to the science of early brain development.
Lederman learned that babies and young children raised by abusive or negligent parents experience extreme stress, even acute depression. She put together a program of health care professionals and case workers to help teach the parents who come through the court system how to give their children a more nurturing, stable upbringing.
"I see children come in because they've been abused by their parents. I watch the children grow up. The children have their own babies and they do just -- they do just what their parents did to them and the cycle never ends," Lederman said.
Using her experience in the courtroom and her new knowledge of brain development, Lederman came up with a groundbreaking experiment that uses the science of babies' brains to change the course of their lives.
In the experiment, a mother interacts normally with her baby, who smiles, gestures and babbles. But when the mother turns away and then presents a totally still face, the baby very quickly senses that something's not right.
To get mom to respond, the baby smiles, gestures, even screeches. In just two minutes, the baby is in total distress -- writhing, crying, turning away in anguish.
The baby's response shows that children learn to trust people early in life, according to Joy Osofsky, Louisiana State University professor of pediatrics.
"One of the things children learn in the first year of life is to form an important relationship with at least one person, and for children who have been taken out of their home, put in one or more placements, they don't learn that, and so what you see is a growing inability to trust people," Osofsky said.
That inability to trust others can lead to stress.
"When the environment is not safe and protective it activates physiological systems that do things like make your heart rate go up, make your blood pressure go up, make your stress hormones go up," explained Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.
Thanks to advanced technology, doctors can now see the effects of stress on children's brains. In a brain scan of a normal child, there's lots of activity in the temporal lobes, which regulate emotions and important learning functions. In the scan of an orphan who was severely neglected, there is hardly any activity in those areas.
"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 parent and turn that abusive or neglectful relationship into a more nurturing, stable and protecting relationship," Shonkoff said.
Lederman has assembled court teams of mental health professionals and case workers. Now, young moms who come through her court aren't just lectured about parenting. Instead, they're referred to a nearby therapeutic center.
First, they're carefully observed interacting with their children. Then, over the course of numerous sessions, they learn how to respond to their babies, to talk, play, and -- as writer Toni Morrison eloquently put it -- to have their eyes light up when their children enter the room.
"We're going to be able to change the course of their lives," Lederman said. "Solve some of the problems that have resulted from the maltreatment and abuse immediately -- immediately so that they can go on to lead productive lives."