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DULUTH – When a child is born to a parent with a drug or alcohol addiction, the baby might be whisked away to a foster home by county child protection workers, leaving the parent in the dark about the newborn's whereabouts and unable to bond with them.

In St. Louis County, court and child protection workers are about to embark on a different approach with a few families: inviting the parents to develop a relationship with their baby's foster parents — supervised at first — so that the infant experiences healthy and consistent attachment to his or her parent.

It's just one aspect of a new "Safe Babies Court" launching here Tuesday.

The county is partnering with a national nonprofit program called Zero to Three, which focuses on the early development of children and the effects of early attachment into adulthood.

Though it is believed to be the first Zero to Three-affiliated court in the state, the concept is similar to other programs that have started in Minnesota, including an Infant Court pilot program started in Hennepin County several years ago.

"What research says is when the parents and the foster parents work together … that helps children, helps decrease trauma," said Amanda Penley, who is overseeing the initiative as the Safe Babies Court Team Community Coordinator for the southern part of the St. Louis County public health department.

"Early experiences matter for a lifetime," said Amy Huffer, a Zero to Three technical assistance specialist who will be speaking to a kickoff gathering for the court Tuesday. "We want to promote the health and well-being of infants and toddlers and their families."

The program will be voluntary for six to eight families in its first year in St. Louis County, Penley said. Parents will be able to invite their own support people — including family or close friends — into the process. They will meet with a social worker, the child's appointed guardian ad litem, an attorney for the parents and a county attorney every other month. The team will check in with a judge on alternate months.

While there will be more accountability with more meetings and closer watch over addiction issues, Penley said, parents will likely also get a chance to see and interact with their children more often while in foster care. Instead of maybe twice a week, Penley said, it could be as often as nearly every day, depending on the situation.

Supervisors of family time will coach parents how to best bond with their children when needed, Penley said, especially first-time parents.

"They can guide parents if they're having an issue," Penley said. "Help them figure out how to do this in a way that they're connecting and not going through the motions."

The hope is that, if the goal is met to return a child to healthy and safe birth parents, the foster care family can act as a resource for the parents after that, too.

"Even though that child is not with that parent, it may end up back with that parent," Huffer said. "We want that parent to be able to maintain that relationship with the child."

Whatever happens, the courts, as they have been tested in other states, help bring a permanent stability to a child's life sooner, Huffer said.

"This is something very important for infants and toddlers," she said. "If they're moving from place to place, that is very difficult."

The state Department of Human Services is putting $200,000 a year toward the court for two years and possibly up to five. Zero to Three has designated St. Louis County as an evaluation site, putting $100,000 in federal grant money toward it this year as well as giving the county free training and database use, with the possibility of the same next year.

St. Louis County District Judge Robert Friday will oversee the court from the county's courthouse in Virginia, Minn. District Judge Shaun Floerke will preside over the court in Duluth.

The program will coordinate the work of people already involved in the system who deal with addicted parents, from medical to social services to courts, Floerke pointed out.

The main goal, he said, is to assure that babies attach to people, creating better outcomes as the children grow up and become adults.

The program facilitators will help both foster parents and biological parents make sure attachment happens, Floerke said.

"We're going to put more muscle on it," Floerke said, "to create an environment of attachment for that baby no matter what."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102