Wayne State to collaborate with MDHHS on a $3.1 million program to expand specialty courts for infants and toddlers in the child welfare system

Dr. Ann Stacks of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and Dr. Bryan Victor of the School of Social Work, are collaborating with MDHHS on a program that aims to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before going to a permanet, safe home.
Dr. Ann Stacks of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and Dr. Bryan Victor of the School of Social Work, are collaborating with MDHHS on a program that aims to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before going to a permanent, safe home.

DETROIT – The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) recently announced receipt of a $3.1 million, five-year grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to provide support in three counties for coordination of Infant-Toddler Court Programs, also known as Baby Court. The program aims to expand highly successful local programs that keeps families with young children together and work to ensure that children under age 4 in the child welfare system grow up in permanent, nurturing homes to support their development.

A team of researchers at Wayne State University will collaborate with MDHHS’s Children’s Services Agency and Bureau of Children’s Coordinated Health Policy, the State Court Administrative Office, and local courts to support data-driven continuous quality improvement, evaluate the effort and serve on the state leadership team responsible for developing a statewide and local infrastructure to implement and expand the Safe Babies Court Team approach – a program that aims to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before going to a permanent, safe home. The team will also work to advance partnerships across systems and programs that will support the well-being and health of children.

Ann Stacks, Ph.D., director of the Infant Mental Health Program at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State, and Bryan Victor, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Wayne State, will lead the university’s research team. Stacks’ research focuses on dimensions of caregiving that support social and emotional development in early childhood, particularly in the context of family risk, including poverty and maltreatment. Stacks has served as the university partner for the Wayne County Baby Court since 2009 and has provided numerous trainings to child welfare workers, attorneys and jurists about the model. In 2011, she was awarded funding from the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation to evaluate the pilot phase of Baby Court, which established evidence for its effectiveness, and in 2020 was awarded funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to establish an online training to support the sustainability of Baby Court. Victor’s research centers on the child welfare system in the United States, with a particular focus on system responses to children’s exposure to domestic violence, reducing harm and social injustice associated with child welfare involvement, and enhancing maltreatment prevention capacity through cross-systems collaboration.

“Together, Dr. Stacks and Dr. Victor have great expertise that will help support and expand the provision of services to better address the complex needs of parents and their young children, with the ultimate goal of building resilient families that remain intact,” said Alissa Huth-Bocks, Ph.D., director of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute.  “There is an urgent need to connect families with infants and toddlers in the child welfare system with high-quality, evidence-driven and coordinated care to promote safe and nurturing homes for children.”

"Keeping families strong and intact is the primary goal of social work practice in child welfare,” said Sheryl Kubiak, Ph.D., M.S.W., dean of the School of Social Work and director of the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice at Wayne State. “The model for this program provides technical assistance to courts and the child welfare system on best practices for supporting families and keeping children healthy and safe. I'm proud that the School of Social Work is supporting that effort."

According to the team, Michigan’s rate of infant and toddler maltreatment is twice the national rate, and 27% of those in the child welfare system who are age 3 and under are victims of child abuse or neglect.

“This is an alarming percentage of children facing maltreatment, as only 14% of Micihgan’s population is made up of children in this age group,” said Stacks. “I’ve seen firsthand the positive impact that Baby Court has on children. The evaluation of our Baby Court in Wayne County mirrored the positive outcomes seen in the national evaluations. Children in Baby Court spend less time in care, are more likely to be reunified with their parent and are less likely to come back into the child welfare system. I feel fortunate to have worked with our Baby Court jurist, attorneys, child welfare professionals and infant mental health clinicians who are compassionate and dedicated to families. I’m looking forward to being a part of the state team to expand the program to other counties. Dr. Victor and I will work closely together to evaluate the effectiveness of the expanded initiative in Michigan to aid in informing quality improvement and determining the effect of Baby Courts.”

 “I’m thrilled for the opportunity to support MDHHS and build on the important work done to date with Baby Courts in Michigan,” added Victor. “Aligning these specialty courts with national best practices will go a long way toward promoting the stable reunification of young children with their parents and caregivers.”

About Wayne State University

Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit research.wayne.edu.

Contact info

Julie O'Connor

Director, Research Communications
Phone: 313-577-8845
Email: julie.oconnor@wayne.edu