Juvenile Courts, Safe Baby Courts Bring Holiday Cheer to Children and Families in Need

December 23, 2020

While the holiday season is a source of joy for so many, it can also highlight differences between those who are able to take things like family and gift-giving for granted and those who cannot.

In many cases, court-involved children don’t have that luxury. Their lives have been disrupted in major ways and the little certainties that most kids build their holiday dreams on, like finding presents under the Christmas tree, may instead be question marks.

Thanks to the generous dedication of Tennessee’s Juvenile Court and Safe Baby Court judges, staff, and community partners, though, a number of these children have a lot to look forward to this holiday season.

Providing gifts to court-involved kids has become a holiday tradition for numerous courts in the state. These programs bring hope and joy not only to the children themselves, but also those children’s caregivers, who may be struggling financially and unable to buy gifts. Moreover, these efforts fill the hearts of those who organize them, giving court staff and judges a chance to turn their attention to positive stories during the holiday season.  

One of the largest efforts in the state is made each year in Williamson County. Operation Santa is an annual collaboration between Williamson County Juvenile Court, Williamson County CASA, and the local office of the Department of Children’s Services.

Juvenile Court Director Zannie Martin explained that Operation Santa focuses mostly on noncustodial cases, where children have been placed with relatives. She said that Juvenile Court is an ideal venue to identify which families seem like they could use a little extra help. Once candidates are identified, team members reach out to families to make sure they are comfortable participating and then to get wish lists from not just children in the system, but all children living in the home.

“We just want to empower parents to be able to provide the way they want to and sometimes can’t,” Martin said.

Thankfully, finding community partners to help acquire the presents for the kids has not been a problem. In many cases, individuals, law firms, and other organizations reach out to the Court asking to assist the effort.

“Our community just steps in in a huge way,” Martin said. “They just overwhelmed us with their compassion for our families and their generosity.”

Once community partners are engaged, staff from Juvenile Court, CASA, and DCS get together (this year via WebEx) to go through the wish lists and match up those partners with Operation Santa recipients.

“It’s for real like North Pole work,” Martin said.

This year Operation Santa has enlisted the help of over 30 sponsors. Together these sponsors have acquired gifts for close to 100 children in 35 families.

Those families are unfailingly thankful for Operation Santa and what it has done for them and their children.

“The parents are just overwhelmed with gratitude because they’re stretched and worried about how Christmas is going to go,” Martin said.

She specifically recalled one recent instance when a DCS worker delivered Operation Santa gifts to a mother of 8. The DCS worker told Martin that the mother was in tears when she saw all the gifts.

“She just said to the DCS worker, ‘I thought you said you would TRY to help. This is amazing. I cannot believe someone thought enough about us to do this,’” Martin recalled.

Other donation campaigns have been undertaken by several of the state’s Safe Baby Courts. Safe Baby Courts seek to ensure permanent and stable homes for children under the age of 4 who have become involved with the justice system due to abuse or neglect. The goal is to help parents or guardians overcome their struggles with mental health issues or substance use disorders so that the family unit can be reunited.

In Stewart County each year, the Safe Baby Court spearheads an initiative aimed at foster children.

“Every year for Christmas we reach out to our community to sponsor a child or family in foster care,” Stewart County Safe Baby Court Coordinator Courtney Wallace said. “We send out wish lists to all the caseworkers and provide those to the sponsors.”

This year Wallace found that there were actually more people willing to sponsor a child than there were children in foster care; “a good problem” to have, she called it.

As a result, the SBC team decided to look for more children to help.

“We reached out to all of the schools in our area, and once we established a need within our school system we were able to assign the additional sponsors to those children within the schools system and those children who may have had DCS in their home on the non-custodial side,” Wallace said.

The end result is that the Stewart County Safe Baby Court was able to secure presents for nearly 70 kids.

In Johnson County, Safe Baby Court Coordinator Leah Charland was likewise pleased to see that community support exceeded expectations. In fact, after Charland reached out to the community looking for sponsors, she got so many responses that they were able to assign two to three sponsors per child.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” she said. “I just can’t really put it into words. I didn’t expect to have this amount of feedback from people, especially during this time when things are so negative. It was great to see so many people willing to help.”

She pointed out that big percentage families who signed up to help children this year were not necessarily wealthy, but that did not stop them from helping out anyway.

“A lot of families are not rich people,” she said. “It’s not like they had a lot of extra money to spend, but they made it work so these families would have a good Christmas.”

Even a week or so before Christmas, the volunteer gift-givers kept signing up and the gifts kept pouring in.

“My office is so full now it’s unbelievable,” Charland said.

In Knox County, Safe Baby Court Coordinator Kaki Reynolds said that the Court was distributing both gifts and food to children and families in need this year.

“With the help of volunteers from the Food City corporate office, we put together 60 food boxes that included tons of nonperishables, fresh pies, rolls, and gift certificates for turkey/ham to be used by each recipient,” she said.

In years past, the Court has hosted a big holiday party event for biological families, foster families, lawyers, and other stakeholders where presents would be passed out. That obviously did not happen this year, so the Court took some of the savings from that cancellation and bought more food to distribute.

“While we would have loved to have celebrated all together, it was still so amazing to support our families and contribute to meaningful family time together amid this quarantine Christmas,” King said.

The greatest gifts that Safe Baby Courts help provide, though, are not food or presents, but reunited families. This year, several Safe Baby Court participants face the happy prospect of once again living with their children under the same roof.

Charland highlighted one couple who have been through the program and are on track to regain custody of their children in January or February.  

“They are on a fixed income and struggle to make ends meet,” she said. “They have spent every extra penny on their home to ensure everything was appropriate for their children to return.  The families that sponsored them were able to provide diapers, wipes, clothing, toys, even furniture.  They were overjoyed with the gifts they will be able to give their children because they did not have any money whatsoever for presents.”

Another story comes from Davidson County, where one mom has just recently been able to welcome her children back into her home for an extended period of time.

This woman was incarcerated in October 2018, Davidson County Safe Baby Court Coordinator Jill M. Overton said. Initially, her two young children went to stay with relatives, but that situation did not work out, and they were put into foster care. In March 2019, the woman was invited to join the Safe Baby Court program, which she entered the following month. At that point she had not seen her children for six months.

With the help of the Safe Baby Court, she was soon able to join a program that allowed her to meet with her children weekly and attend counseling sessions. She was released in June 2019 and worked on building a healthy relationship with her children’s foster parent. Gradually as she progressed through the Safe Baby Court program she was permitted more and more time with her children unsupervised. Now, all of efforts and the efforts of the Safe Baby Court staff and its partners are coming to fruition.

“As of December 18th, the children are now on a 90-day trial home visit with their mother and will spend the holidays full of joy, love, and the comfort of their birth family,” Overton said. “We as a court team are overjoyed at the work the mother put forth to reunite with her children and all the support of our community providers.”

Witnessing people change for the better is a rewarding experience, as is knowing that you have helped to make a family’s holiday season a bit brighter. Thanks to the generosity and work of so many in Tennessee’s Juvenile Courts and Safe Baby Courts, there is plenty of joy to go around.

“It’s a real blessing not just to the families but to our staff too,” Martin said. “A lot of times in this work you wish you could do more; you’re helping as much as you can, but you know that families still have needs that are unmet. When you see the community come together and meet those needs with amazing kindness it means so much.”

Gifts collected by the Johnson County Safe Baby Court await distribution in a courtroom at the Johnson County Courthouse

The Williamson County Juvenile Court's Operation Santa program collected toys for around 100 children this year

Knox County Safe Baby Court staff and community partners worked to give out boxes of food as well as presents to local families

The Stewart County Safe Baby Court collected so many toys this year that it expanded its range of recipients beyond those in foster care