"The first three years are the most critical in terms of brain development and attachment," said Kathryn Shea, director of the Florida Center for Early Childhood, a nonprofit that provides therapy and mental health services for children and parents in the ECC program.
Based on a national model, ECC brings early childhood science to the judiciary by focusing on the proven effects of trauma and toxic stress on the developing brain, said Mimi Graham, director of the Florida State University Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy.
"Even if children are removed from an abusive situation there is still trauma there because they are removed from their parents and those are the only people that they know," Shea said. "They're often going to a new home with people they've never seen — that's a real adjustment."Families who participate in the program receive child-parent psychotherapy to help experts assess the relationship between the parents and their children and to keep track of the child's development."
"Trauma symptoms are often treated as ADHD," Graham said. "We medicate these kids and call it ADHD when oftentimes it's trauma that went untreated."
Because young children who've experienced trauma or abuse can't express what happened or how they feel about it, Shea said, they tend to lash out behaviorally. This is when they start getting expelled or punished in school in ways that are not helpful, Shea said.
"If we have something like Early Childhood Court where we can monitor the children and get them the mental health treatment that they need then the outcome is very positive," Shea said. "If we don't have that intervention and they're never treated for the trauma that occurred the outlook can be bleak."