The stakes are high for all kids in dependency court. But they’re especially high for the youngest children, because what happens in the first months and years of life often determines whether a child will realize his or her potential later in life.

Which is why, a year ago this month, CASA of Los Angeles, as part of its Early Childhood Initiative, held its first Early Childhood Training to equip its volunteers with the knowledge to help all stakeholders see young children’s cases through a developmental lens.

“A lot of people have this idea that when you’re born, you have a brain and, well, that’s your brain, and it acts like a sponge,” explains CASA Rebecca Rankin, who was among the volunteers at the first Early Childhood Training. “But what I came to understand is how much the brain continues to grow after birth, especially during those first three years. So logically, if the brain continues to grow, then we can still make changes and make those years, and the ones that follow, the best they can be.”

Rankin’s training was put to the test last April when she was assigned to Henry, a boy just two weeks old, whose mother had been hospitalized with hallucinations immediately after giving birth to him.

“Henry was my first CASA case, and unlike a lot of people who did the Early Childhood Training, I was a newbie to CASA,” Rankin says, noting that she has two children of her own, one of whom has some learning disabilities. “I’ve always been a firm believer in early childhood intervention, and because of my son’s situation, I’ve been clued into milestones. But when we started doing the training, I got very interested in the science behind it.”

That science helped a pediatrician observe that Henry showed signs, including some facial features, of having been exposed to alcohol while in his mother’s womb. So, with guidance from her Peer Coordinator, Nina Stern McCullaugh — one of several more-seasoned CASA volunteers appointed to help newer CASAs — Rankin then advocated for Henry to be enrolled in a program at UCLA for children at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome and to receive a specialist’s diagnosis. At the same time, she was assessing the protective factors in the home that often contribute to a positive outcome: the foster parents’ social connections, their emotional competence, and their own interest in early childhood development.

“They were your fantasy foster parents,” she says of the couple. “They were on top of everything and they followed everything the court said.”

Not long after, Henry’s biological mother failed to comply with her Department of Children and Family Services case plan, and the statutory time limit for her reunification with Henry expired. Fortunately, Henry’s foster parents had been interested in adopting him all along.

“Some children change foster homes frequently, but the courts are very interested in permanence and stability, which is why they put a time limit on reunification,” Rankin explains. “And when you meet a child in a stable foster home and see how they are thriving, you can really tell how the level of stability works either for or against a child.”

Developed in collaboration with the Child Development Institute, CASA of Los Angeles’s Early Childhood Training is a 12-hour training that combines online learning with in-class presentations and discussion, covering topics from relationships and environmental factors to screening and reporting.

Early childhood cases are often first identified by Early Childhood Liaisons — CASA volunteers who observe hearings in selected courtrooms and work to have children with complex needs assigned to CASAs as early as possible, ideally following the first hearing. And in addition to CASA volunteers, several judges and lawyers have participated in the training, which is resulting in increased referrals from all courtrooms, not only those where there is a CASA Early Childhood Liaison.

CASA is particularly well suited to lead this effort, because just as children 0 to 5 have unique needs, CASAs are in a unique position to help them.

Younger children tend to be a lot less visible than older kids, whose teachers, school nurses, coaches, and friends’ parents all stand a chance of spotting a developmental problem in them. But if a child under 5 is missing his or her milestones, there are many fewer people who might notice. Foster children can be even more invisible.

“Everyone in the system is swamped and struggling to do the best they can, and the CASA is the one person in the courtroom who has the time to really get to know the child,” Rankin says. “Our goal is to understand the child as a human being, not just a case number.”

Purely in terms of numbers, however, the Early Childhood Initiative has been hugely successful since its inception two years ago. In its 2010 fiscal year, for example, CASA of Los Angeles served just 68 children 0 to 5. In fiscal year 2011, that number jumped to 92 children, and, in fiscal year 2012, 118 children. Another significant increase is expected in the current fiscal year.

But just as much as the initiative is about increasing the quantity of young children CASA serves, it’s about improving the quality of advocacy CASA provides. One example of this was on display just ten months after Henry’s placement, when he and his foster family again visited the children’s court — this time to finalize his adoption.

“My gut feeling is that, without a CASA, Henry’s case could have gone the same way, but it probably would have taken twice as long,” Rankin says. “That’s why everyone is so happy. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s the ones that only have a beginning and a middle that we worry about.”