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March 27, 2006

Oregon Child Advocacy Conference: Keynoter Joy Osofsky discusses the youngest children in foster care and the risks they face

On behalf of the children
By Susan Palmer
The Register-Guard
Published: Sunday, March 26, 2006

The videos Joy Osofsky brought with her to Eugene told the story best. First, there was the 11-month-old baby, briefly reunited with an abusive mother, who fussed, then cried, then screamed. When taken away, the infant quickly settled down and fell asleep.
Then there was the 2-year-old so terrified in the presence of her abusive mother that she stood at stiff attention until told to sit down; then she sank to the floor and did not move. The same child, in the presence of a loving grandfather, played and chattered in the typical way of inquisitive youngsters.
Osofsky, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and public health at Louisiana State University, was the keynote speaker at a conference on children organized by the Oregon Child Advocacy Project, a new program at the University of Oregon Law School.
Osofsky spoke to an audience of child-care workers, lawyers and judges from around the West who work every day with children in troubled families.
Her message: The youngest children in the foster care system face a range of risks, from developmental delays to behavior and psychiatric problems. And once they develop problems, they are less likely either to be reunited with their families or to be adopted.
But Osofsky offered more than a depressing flood of statistics. She also described a unique program she developed with a judge in Florida that targeted the youngest children whose mothers were at risk of losing them.
The partnership with the judge was a strategic decision, Osofsky said. While social scientists understand the developmental issues and the needs of children, judges are the ones who can do something about the problems they face, she said.
Osofsky and Miami Judge Cindy Lederman put together the Miami Safe Start Initiative to help parents in danger of losing their infants and toddlers by offering a variety of support services that included 25 sessions of therapy for mothers with their babies.
“Because they were harmed in the relationship, they should be healed in the relationship,” Osofsky said.

While 52 percent of the parents in the program dropped out before completing it, 100 percent of those who remained kept their families together, Osofsky said. 

The challenge now is creating more such partnerships with judges and finding funding to implement the program in other places.

Osofsky was one of several speakers at the two-day event. Conference-goers also heard from social workers, law professors and judges who spoke on methods for nurturing children in difficult settings – affected by poverty, divorce, custody and involvement with juvenile court.
The conference is the first one organized by the Oregon Child Advocacy Project, project director Leslie Harris said. The new program at the UO Law School has a grant from law school graduate Duncan Campbell, a Portland entrepreneur long concerned with child welfare issues.
Campbell also founded Friends of Children, a national mentoring program, where mentors are paid and commit to 12 years of contact with a child.

The Child Advocacy Project focuses on providing research assistance to lawyers working on cases where a child’s relationship with a nurturing adult is at stake. 

For more information about the UO project, visit www.law.uoregon.edu/org/child/. Read the NPR story on Miami’s safe start initiative.

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