Kiran Malpe is the clinical director for the Strong Starts Court Initiative, which works with children from birth to age three who are involved in child protection proceedings in Family Court. Kiran has been at the Center for Court Innovation since May 2015, when she left a clinical position at Albert Einstein’s Early Childhood Center to help establish the first Strong Starts pilot program in the Bronx.
Strong Starts has since expanded to Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island and will be expanding to Manhattan and Westchester County. The goal of the program is to address the needs of this vulnerable population as early as possible.
“Ten thousand infants and toddlers are currently known to New York City Family Courts,” Kiran explains. “The planning agencies most frequently involved don’t necessarily address these kids’ needs, like the impact of trauma on babies and how it impacts long-term developmental outcomes.”
We’re trying to utilize the court as a positive intervention to support families and break intergenerational cycles of abuse, and court and systems’ involvement.
"We also can’t overlook the damage done to the attachment relationship between babies and parents when these cases arise and removals and placement in foster care is likely. Ruptures in attachment that are not healed can have long-term effects.”
Bringing the science of early development to the courts, Strong Starts works with all stakeholders to shift how people look at Family Court cases. “It’s a collaborative and less adversarial, information-sharing process,” Kiran says, “to focus on the clinical needs of the child and family and to prevent cases from lingering, because one month in a baby’s life is a lot of time.”
Kiran got her start working with young children as a preschool teacher after college. One of her students at the time was the reason she eventually went to social work school. “At 2 and a half years old he was described as violent, and it made me look at things with a different lens. I didn’t have access to his home as a preschool teacher, but I had a feeling that something else was going on that was impacting his learning and ability to safely relate to peers.”
A clinical social worker hired as a consultant was eventually able to confirm Kiran’s suspicion. “I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Since then, Kiran has worked with families and children in New York City and Ireland. “I always swore I would never work in child welfare, only in child welfare reform – however, when I moved to Ireland, one of the only options for employment as a social worker was in Child Protective Services. Those five years have been one of the most significant in my career, and I know that I could not do the work that I am doing now in Strong Starts as well or as informed as I am, if not for working in that capacity with families.” Comparing the different systems, she says, “the lack of resources to affected communities and social and family issues are the same.”
Just as with her time as a preschool teacher, Kiran’s work with Strong Starts is about looking at things through a different lens.
Social workers view the whole person. We look at the systemic oppression and racism, we know the effects of being in underserved communities, of intergenerational trauma, and lack of mental health support. It’s about taking a more holistic view of families.
"Sometimes there are other things going on that contribute to an incident. Sometimes court is not the biggest issue in their life, sometimes it’s the loss of public assistance or they might be facing eviction. Every moment in time is about everything that happened prior. We have to really consider that larger story.”
Kiran is most proud of “being a voice for the voiceless, the babies and young parents who often get lost in the shuffle. Because we work with babies,” she explains, “a lot of the parents are really young, and a lot of them grew up in the child welfare system themselves. So we’re also advocating for the parent, and it’s simple things like asking, ‘How can you expect this child who grew up without parents to know how to be a good parent?’”
In addition to looking at the whole family and identifying barriers to engagement, Strong Starts coordinators work to identify which programs, treatment, or resources will best benefit each individual family. But Kiran emphasizes that the most important piece of their work is the relational one. “It’s important to remember that everybody, and every parent, was a baby at one point. We really cannot expect a parent who was not parented well or safely to be a good or safe parent; that is unrealistic. A parent who has never experienced love or care may be coming to terms with the fact that they weren’t loved like that. It’s critical that we remember that all these parents were probably babies that did not get that, and that they should get that, and they deserve to get that and heal from their own childhood trauma.”
In the next five years, Kiran says, “I would love every baby who needs it to have the option to have a Strong Starts coordinator in New York. Every infant and toddler who needs it to have that option, to give them their best chance. There is an opportunity to use the court as a port of entry into helping and healing systems and preventing further maltreatment. We should see it as an investment in communities.”
Transforming justice together means transforming family justice. It means investing in communities and changing the narrative around poverty to a conversation around lack of access.
"How do we strengthen communities while also acknowledging the problem, especially with mental health? There is still a lot of stigma attached to that in communities. With Strong Starts, we have created trust in our families in a very untrusting environment—family court. So we need to bring the science to communities in the same way we’re bringing the science to the courts. We can do better for our babies.”
Outside of work, Kiran loves to spend time with her 8-year old niece. “I do my best to provide as much exposure to different cultures, food, music, experiences, and places to promote her curiosity in others and recognize there is a big world out there and lots to learn about.” Kiran loves to travel herself and is ready to visit new places again once it’s safe. “I miss it dearly.”