The Safe Babies Court Team is a monthly dialogue event hosted in Pulaski County Arkansas. The dialogue is hosted and organized by the nonprofit Zero to Three of Pulaski County. The dialogue is co-organized by the Pulaski County 10th Division Juvenile Court.
Problems and Purpose
The foster care system can be a complex conglomeration of entities from the government, business sector, nonprofit sector and citizens. Judges and social workers often have to guess which services exist so they can help families receive them. It is clear that they try to make decisions in the best interest of families, but do not have a way to know how effective their decisions are.
The purpose of the Safe Babies Court Team (SBCT) is to have a proactive dialogue to provide a forum for coordination and feedback to the system from the many people who work with the system. This dialogue addresses specific shortcomings of our existing systems and creates opportunities for new programs or improvements. The intent is that information will be shared from the community, especially key stakeholders, that will help the court, the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) and other service providers provide better services to families and children who go through those systems. Arkansas is a state in the United States.
Background History and Context
In 2009 the national nonprofit organization Zero to Three (ZTT) hired a Community Coordinator for Pulaski County, a county in the US State of Arkansas, to help fulfil their mission to ensure all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. Along with other projects, the Community Coordinator, Darneshia Bell, was tasked with finding ways to improve outcomes for babies and toddlers that go through the foster care system in Pulaski County. One of the ways she accomplished this was by creating a public dialogue program called the Safe Babies Court Team. Due to the judicial nature of this subject, ZTT and SBCT are reliant on the support of the juvenile court system to permit and host dialogues that can provide feedback directly to judges. In this case the 10th Division Juvenile Court led by Judge Joyce Williams Warren chose to partner with ZTT .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Safe Babies Court Team (SBCT) is organized by the organization Zero to Three in conjunction with the 10th Division Juvenile Court in Pulaski County Arkansas. Zero to Three is an organization that focuses on providing services for early childhood education and community development. The discussions are led primarily by the community director of ZTT and the sitting judge in the 10th division. The majority of funding comes from the ZTT organization. Pulaski County provides some support in the form of providing space and basic amenities and by allowing county employees from the court participate as part of their job. Other supporters include the dozens of local businesses and nonprofits that provide services to families in the foster care system .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The events are open to the public, but they are not advertised publicly. ZTT uses a targeted network recruitment strategy and invites key stakeholders and encourages those stakeholders to invite anyone they think would be a valuable participant or have an interest in the deliberation. The one exception is that participants cannot have a conflict of interest with the court, DHS, or any service providers . There is no formal inclusion or exclusion procedure; however, a prospective participant who, for example, had a currently open foster care case with their children would not be allowed to participate. The recruitment strategy was designed to maximize the number of participants with valuable insight and feedback while avoiding any potential conflict that might arise from advertising the events publicly. Participants are not promised any compensation or enticements, but coffee and breakfast is almost always provided .
Methods and Tools Used
Each monthly dialogue uses different methods which are chosen by the organizer to fit the goals and objectives specific to that discussion. The organizer and co-organizer decide what the goals are based on their organizational missions and previous dialogues that have happened. There are, however, some common themes and techniques that happen as a part of each dialogue .
Common Tools and Methods:
- Facilitation is done by the ZTT Community Coordinator
- Participants sign in and create name tags for easy identification
- Participants are then encouraged to participate in a roundtable discussion.
- Participants introduce themselves to the group and tell a little bit about themselves, such as the reason why they are participating, the organization they came from and how long they have been with them etc.
- The Facilitator begins with Goals, Roles, Norms and an Overview for the discussion.
- The main discussion begins following one of many different methods ZTT chooses to use for different purposes including Panel Discussion, World Café and Round Table Discussions as described in https://participedia.net/method/5309
- Except for months when time runs out, dialogue ends with opening the floor for anyone to make comments or suggestions or ask questions.
- The meeting ends formally but the room is left free for individuals to connect afterwards.
SBCT is a continuous dialogue and the techniques used differ each month to meet specific needs. One common method used is a Panel Discussion. ZTT invites a panel of experts in an area of foster care services and they share information about new services in the county, successful services and programs implemented in other counties and other relevant information that is beneficial to participants. The panelists and participants always have some form of question and answer.
The World Café method is used when the organizers seek to address specific problems with input from the community. People are divided into groups to come up with different ideas, sometimes to address different problems. Subgroups come together in the end to have a full discussion about their solutions. Some of these dialogues can span multiple months so it is expected that participants return.
On at least an annual basis one of the dialogues is a progress report based on data collected by ZTT. This dialogue is a one-way discussion where ZTT gives statistics and feedback about the issue that they are focused on. Participants ask questions but do not contribute to a dialogue.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
SBCT is held monthly and changes based on the goals set by the host and facilitator. The following process description will cover the events of two consecutive dialogues. Many aspects of the meetings remain consistent as described in the ‘Methods and Tools Used’ section, but the core of each event differs. These events were chosen as an example because they describe the overall process well and because the second one described was a continuation of the first.
The first session began with sign in and breakfast and coffee being available as everyone found a seat. Discussion started with introductions. There were about 25 participants present from a diverse range of organizations and personal backgrounds. The facilitator made opening remarks and gave us an overview of the discussion.
In preparation the facilitator had hung 5 flip charts around the room with focus areas written on them. We were instructed to take some time thinking about each of the focus areas and to go around the room and write problems or barriers to success that we have perceived in each of those areas. People with ideas already written were instructed to put a tally mark next to what had already been suggested. When this section was complete, we all took a seat and the facilitator briefly went over all the ideas we had brainstormed.
The Facilitator then took the flip charts and spread them to different areas of the room and instructed us to choose one of the focus areas we are passionate about or that we can be beneficial to and take a seat by that chart. We engaged in a World Café dialogue to come up with ideas on how we can address some of the issues listed in the focus area we chose. The focus area I chose to participate in was “gaps in services.” As a group we identified what we felt was the biggest gap with the best chance of finding a solution. We noted that parenting classes for parents whose children are in the foster care system do not offer any parenting support specific to children with disabilities. Several of the participants have connections to local hospitals and other service providers. The idea we came up with was that we could work with the local university hospital, which employs experts in this subject, to develop a program to teach parenting skills specific to parents of children with disabilities.
When our time was up, we collected back into a large group and summarized our discussions. This was done because some participants may have had special skills or connections they could share with a group they were not originally part of. The facilitator dismissed participants and people talked with each other before leaving.
One month later the second session on this topic was held. The format was about the same as the first, but this time when we met at our focus area tables we spent the time coming up with a formal strategy on how we can make our goal a reality. Fewer people participated in the second discussion, totaling about 20. In addition to our previous group, a key stakeholder from the university hospital was present to help us formalize our plan.
Having a key service provider present resulted in our information and planning ideas being taken back to the hospital for a new program to be developed to address the need we identified
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The dialogue is the primary means by which stakeholders in this community can discuss and assess their programs with others working in the field. Connecting these community stakeholders has resulted in changes in service techniques and the creation of new services and programs that allows foster families in Pulaski County to receive better and more sustainable services. The annual reports that ZTT provides show that the services provided have resulted in improved outcomes for children in foster care .
These dialogues have also made a significant change in the courts. Because the judge participates in discussions, she is made aware of programs that could be beneficial to the children in her court. The judge can order services for children that she may not otherwise be aware of and that may not be possible for those children without the state funding which is made available to comply with an order.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Overall this dialogue is an excellent example of productive public engagement. Everything about this program appears to be optimized to achieve its intended goals. The organization, participation, methods and process all work together to effectively produce positive results. The success of these discussions is in no small part due to the decade of experience Zero to Three has with hosting them. Hosting over 120 dialogues within the same community has given them a strong sense of what works and what does not work for any goal they set.
Having a dedicated facilitator that is deeply connected to the foster care system helps Zero to Three organize, design and set goals for each meeting that result in highly productive meetings. Allowing anyone to participate, but intentionally selecting key stakeholders to invite has resulted in building a strong communication network between entities who work in foster care without leaving out member of the general public who have the passion to seek out connections. The methods and processes chosen for each dialogue are customized to the goals identified and appear to be remarkably effective at achieving many positive outcomes which they carefully monitor.
This kind of public engagement should be implemented in every court district in the US. The major drawback of the SBCT is that it relies on court participation, a political factor outside of the control of Zero to Three. Spending time in a dialogue means that at the very least, judges have to dedicate time and effort towards these events every month. One other factor prevents these dialogues from happening in many more districts. The facilitating organization, Zero to Three, sets case requirements designed for the best outcomes for babies and toddlers that are above the minimum standard required by law. Judges have to be willing to put in more effort into additional hearings and orders if they want to include Zero to Three in their district .
 T. Keech, “Personal Communication”. November 14, 2020
 Zero to Three. (2019). Thriving. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/3663-thriving-2019-annual-report
 Bittner, Jackson “Observations from Safe Babies Court Team.” (unpublished manuscript October 23, 2020), Word document. (Bittner, 2020)
The first version of this case entry was written by Jackson Bittner, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.