|SARASOTA – A bill recently introduced in the Florida House of Representatives would expand funding for Early Childhood Court (ECC) in Sarasota County and launch an ECC in DeSoto County. ECC is a voluntary program that expedites the process for young children to achieve permanency after they are placed into foster care. HB 4771, sponsored by Rep. Margaret Good, will proceed through the legislative process – on track for approval by members of the Florida House. Passing the bill would allocate state funding for ECC in Sarasota and DeSoto counties. (The existing program serves both Manatee and Sarasota counties and is financed through Manatee and Sarasota county governments).
“It is critical that we receive state funding to expand this program, especially in our community which led the state in child removals during the opioid crisis,” said Kathryn Shea, CEO of The Florida Center for Early Childhood. “We need a therapeutic response for these moms and these babies.”
ECC is a partnership between the 12th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, YMCA Safe Children Coalition and the Florida Center for Early Childhood that requires teams of Intervention Specialists to work with parents or caregivers, enrolling them in intensive services which can range from mental health therapy to substance abuse treatment – setting a foundation for a more stable home life.
“It is the goal of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to balance the rights of the parents with the safety and welfare of the child,” said Early Child Court Judge Rochelle Curley. “The best interest of the child, every child, is our guiding light and our ECC sessions have helped many local families reunify safely.”
The ECC program is based on a national model that has been in place since 2005, serving families with children age 0-3. It officially launched in Sarasota and Manatee counties in October of 2017.
Young infants and children who are removed from their biological families at birth or shortly thereafter risk losing a foundation of social and emotional development that occurs within the first 1000 days of a child’s life.
Parents and caregivers that successfully complete the ECC program have 1) achieved permanency with their children faster than those not enrolled in the program and 2) are staying connected to their therapists and receiving family mental health therapy, post reunification, to heal from the trauma of being separated. These intensive services have also impacted the return to care rates in Circuit 12, with those children/families involved in ECC having a much lower return to care than those not involved in ECC.
“This program is a win-win in terms of helping our most vulnerable families and saving state dollars,” said Doug Holder, former state legislator and board member of The Florida Center. “It was recognized by Tax Watch in 2017 for potential cost savings.”