In 15 years on the bench, Miami-Dade County Dependency Court Judge Cindy Lederman has seen countless abused and neglected children re-enter the court system as struggling young parents.

A few years into the job, she realized that the court system was ill-equipped to help these stressed parents learn to care for their children: It was focused on applying the law rather than looking at the science that explains their behavior.

The court ignored issues like parents' depression or their lack of knowledge that can lead them to mistreat their children, Lederman says. It also failed to notice that once children 5 and younger enter the system, they are four to five times more likely to have developmental disorders as children in the general population.

"I saw so many girls grow up in this system and then re-enter the system as parents," she says. "It's an endless cycle. So I thought to myself, 'When can this circle of maltreatment stop?'"

To find out, Lederman recruited psychologist Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, a pediatrics and psychiatry professor at Louisiana State University's Health Sciences Center.

Osofsky showed Lederman research indicating that more than half of the babies in foster care have significant cognitive, language and developmental delays that stem from neglect and maltreatment. The findings convinced her to focus on the youngest children within the system.

"We have young mothers who don't know to smile at their baby because their mother didn't smile at them," Lederman says. "We realized we had to show them how to be a parent."

With Osofsky's help, Lederman launched the Miami Safe Start Initiative, an offering of innovative intervention programs under the court's umbrella that provide parent-support services, including transportation, GED classes and job placement services. The program also provides developmental screenings for all of its infants and toddlers and the first court-based Early Head Start program in the country. The program's centerpiece is an intensive 25-week one-on-one therapy program between mothers and their babies in which therapists help the mothers understand and relate to their children.

"When a child comes into our court, everyone has failed the child," Lederman says. "The child's parents have a multitude of problems and their lives are full of deprivation and impoverishment. Our job is to clean up the mess that's left."

In doing so, they enable young parents, like 19-year-old Veronica Sosa (a pseudonym) to learn how to parent their children.

Teaching parents to parent

Before Sosa moved to Florida with her mother and stepfather when she was 8, she lived with her grandmother and other family members in the Dominican Republic.

"Living with my grandmother gave me a foundation," she says. "But my mom didn't give me the structure I needed, and I had to learn how to do things on my own."

At 12, Sosa was pregnant and living with her now-single mother who was addicted to cocaine. After two years of attempting to care for her mother and son, Daniel (also a pseudonym), Sosa dropped out of school and fled with her son to a friend's house. Within a day, her mother reported her missing, and Daniel was returned to his grandmother's house, since she held custody of the child. A week later, Daniel was placed in foster care due to his grandmother's neglect.

Sosa also entered foster care so she could live under the same roof as Daniel. She struggled with her foster parents' lack of attention which kept her from asking for much, including driving her to her job.

"Not all foster parents get licensed for the right reasons," she reflects. "Mine weren't nurturing. I guess if foster parents aren't your parents they aren't necessarily going to treat you like they are."

During her stay in foster care, a caseworker encouraged her to comply with the order of the judge and enroll in Miami Safe Start to learn to balance her own life and improve her parenting skills.

"I was going through a depression stage at the time," she says, "but I was determined to do anything to get my child."

Through the program's parent-support services, Sosa began seeing a therapist who identified her depression, took parenting classes to learn to relate to her son and enrolled in school to work toward a GED.

Today, Sosa has gained full custody of Daniel, is self-sufficient, feels comfortable as a parent and is close to earning her GED.

"I was young when I had my...child, and so I didn't know a lot," she says. "Now I can understand him better and take into consideration his thoughts and emotion."

Therapeutic jurisprudence

Miami Safe Start's philosophical crux lies in Lederman's therapeutic jurisprudence approach, which considers the law a social force that can produce therapeutic or anti-therapeutic results.

To maximize the court's therapeutic benefits for parents, in 1997 Lederman and Osofsky developed an interdisciplinary team as the Safe Start core so that the program would meet the multiple needs of parents like Sosa.

"I'm not a lawyer, and I don't think like a lawyer," Osofsky says. "The partnership means that we respect each others' disciplines so that when we talk about the same issues we can share our specialties and make better decisions."

Lederman selected early childhood specialist Lynne Katz, EdD, a faculty member and the administrative director of the University of Miami's Linda Ray Intervention Center for high-risk children, to oversee Safe Start's interdisciplinary team.

Katz works with community leaders, service providers, police departments, local and state agencies, and public schools to identify gaps in the system's services and create links to increase parents' access to those services, including helping other agencies' therapists obtain the necessary training in the Safe Start treatment model.

She also oversees the 25-week intensive one-on-one therapy program. The first part of the intervention is a relationship-based assessment so that the therapist can identify the parent's strengths.

"We provide parents a 'travel map' to help them understand and explore what their child needs or wants, even before their child can talk," Katz says.

The therapist videotapes the treatment sessions to provide feedback to the mother and chronicle the parent's progress.

"By showing parents exactly how they interact with their child, we can help them draw from whatever they experienced as a child, give them new techniques and try to help prevent them from repeating the cycle of neglect or abuse they experienced as a child, with their own child," Katz says.

Lederman brings the parents and their therapists to court on a regular basis to check in on their progress. The results, Lederman says, are promising.

"We haven't seen a change in the number of cases in our system," she says, noting that that will take time. "But we have seen a change in the number of children we see with developmental delays."

Because of Miami's results, other communities are taking notice of their model.

In April, Michelle Barclay, the Georgia Supreme Court's court improvement director, organized a visit by DeKalb and Douglas county officials to observe Lederman's court in action.

"Miami seems to have found a better way to handle children 0 to 6," Barclay says. "It's important to have judges divert their calendars, hold frequent hearings and devote resources so that they keep close tabs on their most vulnerable population because it's hard to catch up with them after the fact."

Georgia officials are not alone in learning about the Miami system. Lederman, Osofsky and Katz often travel to other jurisdictions to talk about their program. They've also published an article in Psychology, Public Policy and Law (Vol. 10, No. 1, pages 162-177) that encourages other jurisdictions to consider adopting therapeutic jurisprudence exercises into their work.

"We're trying to change the culture of juvenile courts," Lederman says. "The reality is that juvenile courts can change human behavior, and so we want to break the intergenerational cycle."