JACKSON COUNTY, Mo. -- It takes almost two years for babies and toddlers to get out of the court system and out of foster care, according to Jackson County Family Court.
A new program called "Cradles to Crayons" started this year to speed up that process and help parents involved in abuse and neglect cases reunite with their children faster.
About 45% of children referred to family court cases are three years old or younger.
Jackson County Family Court will evaluate parents in child abuse and neglect cases and determine if they are a good fit for reunification. If they are and have kids newborn to age three, they can go through Cradles to Crayons.
The court will work very closely with parents, providing support to help them overcome hurdles to regaining custody.
Uniting families is the goal of Cradles to Crayons for children in the crucial developmental ages up to three years old.
Judge Dale Youngs heads the program and said its permanency and protection officers are what sets it apart.
"It's an extra set of eyes and services that are available to work in partnership with the children's division worker, that add a little bit more care and treatment to the case," Youngs said.
Two families already had their cases resolved through Cradles to Crayons. Right now, there are 15 families in the program.
Certain cases are excluded from Cradles to Crayons: Severe intentional abuse and neglect cases and cases where the parent is already very close to losing custody do not qualify.
Even if the parent doesn't regain custody, the program will still help speed up the process for getting a permanent placement, guardianship or adoption for the child. People in the program will have weekly reviews with Youngs.
"A lot of the barriers to reunification that exist with the families that we serve here don't have anything to do with parents being bad parents or bad people," Youngs said. "A lot of the barriers exist as a result of poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues or some combination."
Attorney Christine Rosengreen's client is in the program, and she said her client is doing fantastic. She was put into the program because of drug abuse and has an infant. She said they've helped find a place to live, get to job interviews and fill out applications.
"She's seeing the benefits of that program quicker, and I think that's encouraging," Rosengreen said. "I would say that's the greatest benefit."