When Viyolla Matok came out of her C-section at Research Hospital back in January, she heard something no new parent wants to hear.
"They told me I couldn't take her home," Matok said.
While she was in surgery, the father of her child went off on the nurses, and they were worried the home wouldn't be safe for the newborn. Matok wasn't completely surprised — she said her partner was physically abusive toward her, and he struggled with substance abuse and addiction.
That’s how Matok's daughter Harmony entered the foster care system, but thanks to a new program called Cradles to Crayons in Jackson County, Matok got Harmony back fairly quickly.
Technically, Harmony was placed in foster care with her mom under the condition that the father stays out of the picture. Matok said that wasn’t a hard rule to comply with. She wanted to keep her baby.
"I wasn't going to put my child at risk," she said. "Now, it's just me and her."
Nearly half of all child abuse and neglect cases referred to Jackson County Family Court over the last decade involved kids under the age of 3. This program, which started in January, helps move those children to a permanent family faster, whether by reuniting them with their parents or finding them an adoptive family. There are 15 families currently receiving services through the program.
Often in cases like Harmony’s, the average time spent in foster care waiting for a permanent home is 23 months. Family Court Administrative Judge Dale Youngs said that’s too long.
"The science shows that the longer they're in foster care at that age, the more harm it does to them," Youngs said. "A lot of their development is happening from age zero to 3, and when they don't have access to a safe and permanent family structure it's bad for them long term. We see it all the time."
Reunification with the birth family is always the goal, he said. For the program, the county repurposed three positions to create a unit of "permanency officers" dedicated to helping parents get the services a judge orders, whether it’s substance abuse counseling or adequate housing.
Attorney Laurie Snell represents Matok and said parents like her need all the help they can get.
"There’s nobody out there for these people, and the caseworkers have too high caseload to do the boots on the ground type stuff," she said.
This can be something as simple as making sure the parents can get to a court appointment. Snell said many families who live in poverty and lack resources just need a help up. The permanency officers are on hand to do that, in and out of the courtroom.
"They’re another set of eyes and ears and another set of support so they can say, 'OK, I’m going to help you find housing,' and they go out, put them on every list they can, drive them around to all the Section 8 places," she said. "We never had that person before."
It's this boost that helps parents get the court-ordered services and make their court dates, which helps cases like Matok’s go faster.
If she had missed out on those first few months with Harmony, Matok said she thinks it would have broken their bond.
"I wouldn't have had time to learn how to mother her," she said.
Ultimately, court officials want to keep the youngest children like Harmony out of foster care — which is something Matok experienced first-hand.
Her parents were Sudanese refugees. When Matok was 2, child services found her and her siblings locked at home alone. She’s been in foster care ever since. She has haunting memories — once, she said she was locked in a closet for hours. At another home, she said she was assaulted by a foster parent, and no one believed her.
Matok said she can’t imagine her own daughter going through that.
"My child going into care, being in the system, feeling the way I felt, especially being a girl, feeling alone. I don't want her to, out of loneliness, try and confide in toxic men. I want her to feel loved and wanted," Matok said.
The 20-year-old said she has spent her whole life feeling like no one believed in her. But recently, when the court dismissed her case, that changed.
"I feel like I broke the cycle," Matok said. "I'm trying to break the cycle."
With her baby in her arms, for the first time, Matok said she feels like everything is going to be OK.