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Making a Difference for Children

Center of Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health director hopes to revolutionize court-ordered visitation practices for children

Posted in: Education, Faculty Voices, Research

Gerry Costa

For Gerard Costa, Early Childhood, Elementary and Literacy Education professor and director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health (CAECMH) at Montclair State University, nothing matters more than a child’s emotional, interpersonal and physical well-being.

“I have an impassioned wish to make a difference for infants and children,” he admits. A noted thought leader, Costa recently developed a video podcast for Family Court judges that he hopes will encourage much-needed changes in New Jersey’s visitation practices for children in out-of-home placements.

Produced by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) with funding from a federal Children in Court Improvement Grant, Costa’s recently released “Visitation Practices and their Impact on Infants, Children and Caregivers: Promoting Security and Stability of Relationships suggests that consistent, collaborative and caring visitation practices help mitigate the trauma to children who have been removed from their homes and placed in protective care.

After determining that a child is at risk or has been abused or neglected, New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency either recommends keeping the child with his or her family while providing in-home services and support, or placing the child in temporary foster – or resource – homes.

“Interventions should be done differently,” says Costa, who also developed a presentation in 2015 entitled “Unintended Consequences: Reducing Trauma for Young Children in the Child Welfare System.” “Actual intervention and how removal occurs can be a traumatic event in the lives of both children and their families. If the focus is just on protecting the child, there can be unintended consequences that can often be more dangerous and damaging than the risk of abuse or neglect.”

Costa hopesVisitation Practices and their Impact on Infants, Children and Caregiverswill promote policy changes by informing judges about how best to handle visits between a child in an out-of-home placement and his or her family. “The way visits between children and birth families are handled has to be particularly thoughtful, with birth and foster families working together to support the child’s best interests, security and mental health,” he says.

Costa’s work on early childhood interventions and visitations aligns with the CAECMH belief that social-emotional mental health development is central to developmental and educational progress in infants and children.

In addition to its focus on professional development, and academic education and research, the Center offers a complete, holistic suite of clinical and psychotherapeutic services that supports families beginning with pregnancy. While it is a Brazelton Touchpoints Center and a Lamaze International Prenatal Education Center, its services also include parent support, breastfeeding promotion and pediatric massage trainings – all designed to get infants and their caregivers off to the best possible start.

“Our Center is unique in blending perinatal health education, mental health counseling and community programming,” says Jill Wodnick, the Center’s project coordinator for pre/perinatal programming and community outreach. “We see sharing specific pregnancy support services in our Center as a protective factor amidst real stressors.”

Long committed to fostering the emotional well-being of infants and children facing the insecurity and the potential trauma of interventions, Costa has been actively involved with ACNJ for more than 20 years, and has worked closely with the statewide Children in Courts Improvement Committee. As he sees it, when the state decides to intervene, a cascade of events ensues. “It may be 72 hours –and at times longer – after a child is removed from home before he or she is briefly reunited with parents. Neither child nor parent is prepared for the pain of reunion, and the limited visit is made more damaging by the infrequency of the visits that follow and the lack of emotional care for the child and family. This can give the child a heightened sense of insecurity and distress,” he explains. “Changing intervention and visitation practices can mitigate this.”

On May 9, the Eighth Annual Todd Ouida Children’s Foundation Conference will focus on a theme of “Creating Safety for and within Infants and Children.” Costa believes that through Center-sponsored programs such as this – as well as his podcasts and professional presentations, and the remarkable work of Associate Director Kaitlin Mulcahy and the full team – the Center can help spark a revolution in how families and caregivers might work together with family services to promote protected infant and child mental health.

Visit to view “Visitation Practices and their Impact on Infants, Children and Caregivers: Promoting Security and Stability of Relationships.

Visit to view “Unintended Consequences: Reducing Trauma for Young Children in the Child Welfare System.”