Pictured from L-R: Leigh Merritt, David O'Kane, John Couch, George Roberts, Carrie Toy
Photo credit: Frank Brown

Florida Early Childhood Court, State of Florida

The Florida Early Childhood Court initiative—led by the Court Improvement Program—is utilizing a project strategy that includes both a state-level systems approach and a local-level implementation approach. There is momentum in the state to expand the Early Childhood Court (ECC) initiative throughout the state, with some circuits having fully implemented the SBCT components and other circuits in the beginning stages. The QIC-CT started with one jurisdiction in Florida, Pinellas County, for evaluation purposes. Four additional counties have been added to the project, including: South Okaloosa County, Bay County, Pasco County, and Hillsborough County. For additional information on Florida's statewide ECC sites, click here. For information on all of the ECC jurisdictions in Florida, click here.

Pinellas County Early Childhood Court

Geographic/Demographic Reach: Pinellas County. In OHC Pinellas there are 760 children ages 0-5. There are 369 children age 0-3 in care (143 in foster care and 226 in relative/non relative care). 

Court Team Members:

  • Sixth Circuit Court: Court Administration, Judge and part time Community Coordinator
  • Eckerd Community Alternatives
  • State Attorney’s Office
  • Regional Counsel
  • Parent Attorney
  • Directions for Living (case management and Project Hope, including peer mentoring)
  • Guardian ad Litem Program (GAL)
  • University of South Florida St. Petersburg
  • Department of Children and Families

Key Barriers to Address:

  • Substance abuse
  • Cases with an incarcerated parent
  • Funding for full time Community Coordinator
  • Funding for Circle of Security
  • Funding for continuity beyond 90-120 days

Resources Available for Parents:

  • Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP)
  • Peer Mentoring
  • Project Hope
  • Co-parenting
  • Ice breaker meetings

Resources Available for Children:

  • CPP
  • GAL appointed in all ECC cases
  • Child care
  • Co-parenting
  • Ice breaker meetings

Promising Practices:

  • CPP
  • Co-parenting
  • Peer mentoring
  • Frequent court appearances/ECC calendar 1-2 times per month
  • Frequent Visitation--at least 3 times a week and additional phone calls, skype etc.
  • Very interested and committed team

Desired Practice Change:

  • Greater collaboration between biological parents and substitute caregivers to facilitate co-parenting
  • Greater awareness of and focus on the needs of the child
  • A dedicated, full-time Community Coordinator to assist and be more involved in each case
  • Increased collaboration among providers 

Public Events: 2015 Child Protection Summit Networking Opportunity 

South Okaloosa Early Childhood Court

Geographic/Demographic Reach: South Okaloosa County

Court Team Members:

  • 1st Judicial Circuit Court Judge
  • FamiliesFirst Network of Lakeview Center, Inc.
  • Department of Children and Families
  • Guardian Ad Litem
  • Community Drug and Alcohol Council
  • Early Learning Center
  • Bridgeway Center, Inc.
  • Shelter House
  • Pattison Professional Counseling
  • Children’s Advocacy Center
  • Early Steps

Key Barriers to Address:

  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Poverty
  • Housing
  • Lack of foster homes
  • Lack of medical foster homes
  • Transportation
  • Untreated mental health

Resources Available for Parents:

  • Child-Parent Psychotherapy
  • Infant Mental Health Counseling
  • Case management
  • In-patient substance abuse treatment
  • Out-patient substance abuse treatment
  • 12 step meetings
  • Subsidized child care
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Psychiatric services
  • Medication management
  • Domestic violence counseling
  • Transportation assistance
  • Visitation center

Resources Available for Children:

  • CPP
  • Infant Mental Health Counseling
  • Early Steps
  • Child care

Project Highlight: Obtained research grant through the Florida Institute of Child Welfare.  Obtained a grant through BP to train 35 clinicians in the area of Child-Parent Psychotherapy. 

Desired Practice Change: Greater collaboration between parent and substitute parent to facilitate co-parenting and increased visitation.

Public Events: Grant obtained through the Florida Institute was highlighted through WUWF (NPR radio), in the Pensacola News Journal, and on the Facebook site of the Studer Community Institute.

Bay County/Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Early Childhood Court

Geographic/Demographic Reach: Bay County. In Bay County as of 2016, there are a total of 89 children in the jurisdiction and 18 children age 0-3 in foster care.

Court Team Members:

  • Community Coordinator
  • GAL Coordinator & Volunteer
  • CPP provider
  • Case Management
  • ELC
  • Placement
  • Nurse Coordinator
  • Early Steps
  • Visitation Center
  • CPI
  • Parents
  • Domestic Violence Advocate
  • Substance abuse provider
  • GAL Attorney
  • CLS attorney
  • Parent’s attorney
  • Court Liaison for 14th Circuit
  • BigBend Community Base Care

Key Barriers to Address:

  • High rate of removals
  • High substance abuse in the area
  • Lack of local foster homes.

Resources Available for Parents:

  • Case Management
  • CPP
  • ELC
  • Visitation Center
  • CPI
  • Domestic Violence  Counseling
  • Substance Abuse Treatment
  • FITT Team
  • Batterers Intervention
  • Parenting Program
  • Counseling
  • Family Empowerment Program
  • Anger Management
  • Psychological Evaluation
  • Psychiatric Evaluations
  • Bonding

Resources Available for Children:

  • CPP provider
  • ELC
  • Early Steps
  • Infant Mental Health
  • Counseling

Project Highlight: The Bay County ECC team is a committed team of professionals from various child welfare agencies that has been a consistent front since the program started. These team members create an environment that focuses on problem solving. Each steps outside their individual roles to come up with solutions and goes beyond their duties to assist each family.

Desired Practice Change:

  • Shorten length of foster care stays
  • Increase child wellbeing
  • Mitigate the effects of trauma exposure
  • Strengthen the relationship between the parent and child
  • Increase interaction between foster parents and biological parents
  • Minimize multiple placements for children and reach timely permanency
Early Childhood Court Pasco


Pictured from L-R: Nancy Delgado, Roxanne Mayorca, Julie Moore, Judge Lynn Tepper, Andria Peek, Alisha Anderson, Katherine Moreno, Salina Perez, Kimberly Harrison
Photo credit: Frank Brown

Geographic/Demographic Reach: East Pasco. In East Pasco, there are a total of 96 children 0-5 under protective supervision (Age 0: 17; Age 1: 17; Age 2: 15; Age 3: 15; Age 4: 16; Age 5: 16). There are a total of 19 children age 0-3 who are currently in foster care.

Core Court Team Members:

  • Circuit Court Judge
  • Infant Mental Health Specialist – Family Infant Toddler Treatment Services
  • Community Coordinator- BayCare Behavioral Health’s Community Health Activation Team (C.H.A.T.)
  • Assistant State Attorney- State Attorney’s Office
  • Case Management Supervisor - Youth and Family Alternatives (Y.F.A.)
  • CPI Assistant Director- Pasco County Sheriff’s Office
  • Senior Director of Operations- Eckerd

Court Team/Community Stakeholders:

  • Youth and Family Alternatives (YFA)
  • Family Infant-Toddler Treatment Services
  • BayCare Behavioral Health
  • Regional Counsel
  • Parents Attorney’s
  • Guardian Ad Litem
  • Sunrise (Domestic and Sexual Violence Advocates)
  • FIT/UFC Programs-BayCare Behavioral Health
  • West Central Early Steps/All Children’s Hospital
  • Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando
  • Florida Department of Health
  • Healthy Start Program
  • Healthy Start Coalition
  • BayCare Behavioral Health
  • Foster Parents Association
  • Eckerd Community Alternatives
  • Boys and Girls Club of Lacoochee
  • Pasco Kids First
  • Prevention Projects

Key Barriers to Address:

  • Lack of trauma-informed assessments and providers
  • Lack of therapeutic foster homes
  • Transportation barriers for families
  • Substance abuse issues
  • Mental health issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Minimal East Pasco foster homes
  • Trainings for caregivers
  • Lack of housing
  • Currently no child psychologist on the team
  • Need for more pediatric dentists 
  • Need for a parent partnership program
  • Few early learning centers are currently part of the Sunshine Star rating program

Resources Available for Parents:

  • CPP services
  • Family Infant-Toddler Treatment Services
  • Ice breaker meetings
  • Sunrise (dv/sv services and shelter)
  • Bus system
  • Eckerd
  • YFA
  • BayCare
  • FIT and UFC teams
  • Substance abuse programs (inpatient, intensive outpatient, residential, outpatient individual and group)
  • Mental health programs
  • Medication Management services
  • Early Steps
  • ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy)
  • Healthy Start
  • Healthy families
  • Premier (medical care)
  • Foster Parent Association
  • Circle of Security Parenting groups

Resources Available for Children:

  • Medical foster homes
  • CPP providers
  • Early Steps
  • Therapeutic foster homes
  • Therapy dogs for court
  • Dual books (2 for 2) program
  • Guardian ad litem program
  • BayCare (CPP, Mental Health Treatment and Psychiatry Services)
  • Primary pediatrician
  • Children’s medical services
  • Child Protection Team
  • Family Infant-Toddler Treatment Services
  • Early Learning Centers
  • Dedicated Case Management (YFA)

Promising Practices:

  • A strong stakeholder collaboration
  • The community based care provider has dedicated specific case managers and transporters to work specifically with early childhood court families
  • The stakeholders collaborate to problem solve on global and case specific issues
  • The community based care providers do “ice-breakers” to bridge the gap between the parents and the caregivers
  • Judge Tepper has built a relationship with state and federal legislators regarding trauma informed courts
  • BayCare Behavioral Health has a strong partnership with the court team and is training additional therapists in CPP as well as building their infant mental health program--BayCare Behavioral Health funded the Community Coordinator position for this site

Desired Practice Change:

  • Create a point of contact in each agency to address all developing issues
  • Create a central point of communicating information between stakeholders
  • Create a growing group of “trauma-Informed” partners and providers in the county

Public Events: 4/29/16: 5th Annual Substance Abuse Prevention Conference-Strengthening Our Community: Creating Healthy Solutions: A breakout session highlighting East Pasco’s Early Childhood Court program will be featured!

Media Articles: Guest editorial by Judge Lynn Tepper for the Tampa Bay Times-pending; Statewide 55 minute webinar: “Viewing Individuals through a Trauma Lens” presented by Judge Tepper through the Florida Supreme Court and hosted by the Florida’s Center for Child Welfare at USF on 3/30/16.

Hillsborough County Early Childhood Court


Pictured from L-R: Katherine Kidd, Shelton Gilyard, Heather Grates, Lisa Maddocks, Mary Marie King, Judge Essrig
Photo credit: Frank Brown

Geographic/Demographic Reach: Hillsborough County. In Hillsborough, 1,571 children ages 0-5 are under protective supervision in relative care, non-relative care, foster care, and in-home. 765 children ages 0-3 are in out-of-home care with a relative, non-relative, or foster care.

Core Court Team Members:

  • 13th Judicial Circuit
  • Bay Area Early Steps
  • Champions for Children
  • Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
  • DACCO
  • Department of Children and Family Services
  • Devereux
  • Early Learning Coalition
  • Eckerd Community Alternatives
  • Gracepoint
  • Guardian Ad Litem
  • Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services
  • HCSO, Child Abuse Investigations
  • Healthy Start Coalition
  • Hillsborough County Family Partnership Alliance
  • L. David Shear Children's Law Center of BALS
  • Office of Attorney General
  • Positive Family Partnership
  • Regional Council
  • The Children's Board of Hillsborough County
  • The Early Childhood Council
  • The Spring

Key Barriers to Address:

  • Funding for parent mentors

Resources Available for Parents:

  • Co-Parenting Initiative, May 2016
  • Ice Breakers Initiative, May 2016
  • Touchpoints Trained Case Manager, GAL and Community Coordinator
  • 30 Trained CPP Clinicians within Hillsborough County
  • 2-4-2 Book Project

Resources Available for Children:

  • Infant Mental Health trained clinicians providing CBHAs for children 0-3 years of age

Promising Practices:

  • Expansive and committed stakeholders group
  • Commitment of Judge Essrig involved in Specialized Court programing to support children and families in the community
  • Dedicated full time Community Coordinator position funded by The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the Children’s Services Council
  • Piloting the use of Family Team Conferencing model practice with families

Desired Practice Change:

  • Increase parent-child contact
  • Adoption of Co-Parenting Model
  • Increase infant mental health awareness throughout the child welfare system of care
  • On-going training and professional development, including supervisors that can support reflective practice