State's First Safe Baby Court Graduation Highlights Changed Lives, Reunited Families

March 18, 2019

In 2017, Bo and Jessica, a couple in their 30s, welcomed twin boys into the world. They were loving parents, but the couple had a problem, an all too common one in today’s world: they were addicted to opioids.

That addiction led to trouble later in the year when both Bo and Jessica were separated from their children following an arrest on drug-related charges. 

What could have been a dead end for the couple, though, turned into a new beginning thanks to an innovative court pilot program offered in Coffee County, as well as six other Tennessee counties.

The Safe Baby Court program is dedicated to ensuring the welfare and secure placement of children who come under court jurisdiction. Since many children are placed under court jurisdiction because of their parents’ substance abuse disorders, Safe Baby Courts typically work on rehabilitating parents so that families can be reunited.

Bo, Jessica, and another local mother became Tennessee’s first three Safe Baby Court graduates recently during a ceremony in Coffee County General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Brock’s courtroom.

“We’ve watched them progress over the past year, year-and-a-half and literally change and transform before our eyes,” Judge Brock said of the graduates. “You see them when they first come and then you see them at the end, and they are not recognizable. I am so thrilled for them. I’m so happy for them and their children. It’s been a pleasure and a blessing to work with you and see you change your life and reunite your family.”

Tennessee State Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) also spoke at the event. Senator Haile has been instrumental in establishing Safe Baby Courts in the state through the passage of legislation and through his own enthusiastic advocacy efforts.

“What I want to tell you is what you have done and what you are doing is really great,” Senator Haile told the graduates. “It is important not only for you and your children, but it is important for others all across this state, in other Safe Baby Courts, in courts to come, in families to come into these courts. What you have done is an example to others, and I want you to be very, very proud of what you’ve done and what you are going to accomplish going forward, both for yourselves and for your children.”

Holding their sons, Bo and Jessica each expressed gratitude for the opportunity they had been given by the Safe Baby Court program.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” Bo said. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for this program. It’s greatly appreciated.”

By the time Bo entered the program near the end of 2017, he had been an opioid addict for nearly 20 years.

“It was tiring,” he said. “It was a long road I guess you could say.”

Now, he has been clean for almost 15 months. 

“It’s like a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done something.”

The Coffee County Safe Baby Court was established by legislation in 2017 that also created programs in Johnson, Knox, Madison, and Stewart Counties. The state’s first Safe Baby Court was started in Davidson County in 2015. Another started shortly after in Grundy County.

Coffee County Juvenile Court Magistrate Stacy Lynch explained the purpose of the Court in a video produced by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services.

“We have these children just coming in and out of foster care,” she said. “It is just devastating to see what is happening to these children and their families. We just want to stop the cycle.”

The way to stop that cycle, which has grown more powerful with the rise of the opioid epidemic, is to provide the parents of at-risk, younger children with resources that they can use to turn their lives around.

“The goal of Safe Baby Court is to give them a support system and give them the tools necessary so they will make lifelong changes that will affect not only their success but their families’ success,” she said.

There are a number of requirements that must be met before someone participates in a Safe Baby Court program. For instance, participants must have at least one child who is zero through three years old; they must have an open case with the Department of Children’s Services; and they must voluntarily agree to be part of the docket.

The Safe Baby Court program does not have a definite duration for participants. Rather, court staff and the presiding judge and magistrate track the progress of enrollees over a period of months as those enrollees do things like attend support group meetings, take life skill and parenting classes, and receive mental health therapy and counseling. Parents are also granted increased visitation with their children during their time in the program, in an effort to encourage healthy parenting skills and keep family bonds strong.

Bo and Jessica graduated after prolonged participation in an intensive outpatient program, consisting of two to three meetings per week, and regular attendance at twelve-step program meetings. They are now involved in a six-month aftercare program.

The results of all that hard work have been life-changing.

“I feel like a whole new person really,” Bo said. “I feel blessed that I went through what I had to go through to get here.”

Jessica hopes that others will learn from her and Bo’s experiences and give Safe Baby Court a chance.

“Try it,” she said. “You see a lot of people who brush it off, not pay attention to it when you first get in there, but it is worth it.”  

Bo agrees. Safe Baby Court gave him the power to improve his own life, and his kids’ lives as well.

“It wasn’t our kids’ fault we got in trouble,” he said. “It was our fault. But we can focus more on our family now.”

Note: All Safe Baby Court participants consented to have their photographs taken in court.

One of the Safe Baby Court graduates receives her diploma during the graduation ceremony.