Darneshia Allen of Safe Babies: Helping Families in Crisis

Darneshia Allen is manager of Training and Technical Assistance Integration for Safe Babies nationally and works out of Washington, D.C.
Darneshia Allen is manager of Training and Technical Assistance Integration for Safe Babies nationally and works out of Washington, D.C.

Much of the support that Arkansas families need when facing a crisis already exists, but we must redesign how we distribute it, particularly to help the youngest and most at-risk populations, says Darneshia Allen of Safe Babies.

When a parent is overwhelmed by the stresses of life, or lacks parenting capacity and isn’t sufficiently attaching with a child, we must intervene and walk alongside the child – before it’s too late, building “support scaffolding” for the family, Allen says. Otherwise, a baby suffers the most lasting harm.

Experiences during the first three years of life shape 80 percent of who a baby will become, says Allen. “That’s when a baby learns: am I able to trust my environment? Is it a safe place for me? Am I safe to grow and learn?” she explains. “Everything from your sensory experiences to your visual interpretations of the things you see, to your earlier pieces of your cognitive functions, the whole frontal lobe.”

Without a safe, stable environment and nurturing caregivers, babies shift to survival mode and their development stalls.

“You get a child who is lethargic, you get a child who suffers when it comes to growing their language skills. You get a child with cognitive delays, developmental delays, delays with early care and education, because they didn’t have the foundation in place. The frame wasn’t set. Which reflects the absence of strong brain development from the start.”

In Arkansas today, by the time children are taken into foster care, the situations are grave. Child welfare and the courts are designed to meet the needs of young children and their families, but rely heavily on punitive processes with pass or fail measurements that shame and blame families who are already weakened by trauma and overwhelming stress.

“It can make you feel very powerless,” she says. “Particularly when we have parents who have been in the foster care system themselves and now their children are entering in that multigenerational pathway, many with pre-existing trauma often compounded by domestic violence or mental health issues that were untreated, or exposure to substance use disorders.”

The Safe Babies program operates in 28 states, including Arkansas. The program is designed to lead parents on a path of resilience and healing, rather than penalize them for deficiencies. There is considerably less recidivism with this collaborative approach. More than two-thirds of families in the Safe Babies program find lasting permanency in reunification, and children exit foster care six to eight months sooner than those in the general child welfare population. Within 12 months, less than one percent of maltreatment reoccurs, compared with nine percent in the general population.

“They are not lingering in care, and more importantly, they are not coming back, because this work is about resiliency,” Allen says.

Particularly when substance use disorders are involved, the timeline of a court case is discordant with a parent’s recovery.

“EXPERIENCES DURING THE FIRST THREE YEARS OF LIFE SHAPE 80 PERCENT OF WHO A BABY WILL BECOME.”
DARNESHIA ALLEN

“By federal statute, if a family’s coming into the path of child welfare, the hope is to remediate in 12 to 15 months,” Allen says. “That (doesn’t align with) the neurobiology of substance use disorders, where depending on the substance, recovery may truly begin closer to the end of a six-month space of time. For example, if it’s something like methamphetamine, we know that when they hit that six-month mark, within three months there is a greater likelihood of the peak moment for relapse. And you have to know that, and know that you’re chasing a timeline. It doesn’t even match the need.”

The Safe Babies program is part of ZERO TO THREE, and its mission includes partnering with parents experienced in the child welfare system to educate courts, child welfare, early care and education providers, mental health clinicians, public health partners, resource parents and fostering agencies on how to work with the families involved in child welfare. The program also partners with legislators to improve policies and helps community partners develop networks of services to offer families before intervention is needed.

“Safe Babies is constantly considering if there’s something else we could do, or could have done, instead of bringing babies into care? Every seven minutes there is a baby coming into care in the U.S.,” Allen says. “Of the 7.2 million children in foster care, 20 percent are under one year of age.”

Many individual programs offering direct support to families already exist in Arkansas, but funding is often insufficient.

“I think about the Angel Clinic at UAMS supporting young moms with mental health disorders who are also combating substance use recovery. It exists, but in a limited capacity. The folks at Our House, who not only catch families who are homeless but those at risk of being homeless. They give you a place to sleep, they have job training programs on site, educational programs to help folks get their GED, and economic support and education.

“We’re not using these programs as well as we could. They’re right here. And they could mean the difference for a family entering into the foster care system because they were homeless, because they didn’t have access to resources,” she says. And meanwhile, “nobody’s buffering the baby.”

Allen, who is manager of Training and Technical Assistance Integration for Safe Babies nationally, now works out of Washington, D.C. She has worked almost 30 years with young children, beginning as an early care teacher.

She envisions a society where we meet families who are in deep crisis, often with substance abuse disorders, “lost and scared with no idea what they are going to eat tomorrow or where they are going to sleep.”

“And we say, ‘Allow me to walk beside you. I’m here to make you stronger. Join me in believing in you. Nothing is impossible, especially when we do it together.’ It makes me want to get up and do this work every single day. Every day, I get to change somebody’s stars.

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

The podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.

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