What are the ethics of raising a teenager? First, if you don't kill them, you're doing good. Second, even though it is the hardest job ever expected of you in your lifetime, you cannot abandon the child.
I wonder just how many parents are currently threatening their teens: "If you don't straighten up, I'll drive you to Nebraska and leave you there. I can't be arrested for abandonment." One hell of alot of them, I bet. It's a fact that parents who do so cannot be arrested. But, it's just talk. No one would ever really do it. Oh yeah?
ETHICS HELL, IT'S SURVIVAL
It's happening all right. As of this writing, 35 kids have been dropped off at Nebraska hospitals ever since the state legislators make a mistake. The last state in the union to provide a safe haven law, Nebraska did not specify the age or define the word "child" in the statute. State legislators' intent was to provide a safe haven for unwanted newborns; but, they passed a law that allowed parents to abandon even teenagers without fear of prosecution. Uh-oh! Who Knew?
Overwhelmed parents have dropped off 20 teenagers and a number of pre-teens -- but not even one newborn. They came from Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Michigan to dump their problem teens. It's both infuriating, tragic and heart-rending. There seems to be anguish all around.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
Here are just a few examples:
- A father, an unemployed widower, handed over his nine children, ages one to 17,terminating his parental rights because he couldn't care for them alone after his wife died;
- A mother of a 15-year-old girl was angry after her teen had a big fight with a relative, and dumped her girl at a hospital with the parting shot: "I'm done with you!";
- A mother left her 14-year-old son with $10 and a suitcase, telling hospital personnel that she didn't want to scare the boy;
- A mother, herself a 16-year-old and a single mother attempted to abandon herself, with her baby, so they would be able to receive some help from the state;
- A father flew in from Miami, Florida to sign over his son; and, grandparents from Iowa drove to Nebraska to leave their unmanageable grandson.
"Sometimes a desperate parent will tell the child they're going to the hospital for something minor, like a rash -- then, in the emergency room, the child waits and waits, only to discover that only the doctors are there and mother has walked away for good," reports Time magazine. "On the other hand, unruly teenagers might simply be dumped at the ER door."
ALL RIGHT, NOW GET OUT!
"A parent will pull up and say, 'All right, get out of the car,' says Lisa Stites of Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman even went on CNN and begged people: "Please don't bring your teenager to Nebraska." To fix the law, the governor called a special session of the state legislature, which is currently still meeting. But in the meantime, youngsters continue to be abandoned by parents who are trying to beat the deadline.
All of these parents seem to have something in common -- they are desperate for help.
"There's a lot of desperate and frustrated parents who are at their wits' end," said Lincoln (NE) Police Chief Tom Casady, reports the Chicago Tribune. "If you provide an easy button, you shouldn't be surprised it would be hit."
Soon Nebraska will have buttoned-up it's loop-hole, narrowing its statute to allow only babies a safe haven. However, many believe that will merely sweep the problem under the rug. The unintended consequences of the Nebraska law is that it revealed a deeper problem -- a shortage of resources to help troubled families. And, it's not limited to Nebraska.
NEBRASKANS AT BOTTOM OF HEAP FOR HELP
Yet, Nebraska ranks at the bottom for child care assistance and health care coverage for the children of working families, reports the Omaha World-Herald. Nebraska is also among the lowest in state spending on mental health care. Third, there are 6,600 children in state custody, which per capita is one of the highest rates in the country, according to a report by CNN. Interestingly, the state's Department of Health and Human Services published a background profile on 30 of the 35 safe haven cases, and found:
- 27 children have received mental health treatment;
- 28 children came from single parent homes;
22 children had a parent with a history of incarceration; and,
20 of the 30 children are white; eight are black.
This surprise epidemic of child abandonment in Nebraska is a wake-up call. We need to wake up and do something about these kids. With the safe haven laws, the message seems to have been that only newborns are worth saving, only cute babies deserve to get help. If you're older, particularly if you're a troubled teenager or the parent of one, you just don't get the help you so desperately need. Why are we surprised that desperate measures -- like abandoning your own kid -- are taken?
"These parents had to be totally overwhelmed to do something like this," Rev. Steven Boes, president of Boys Town, told Time magazine. "...(They) are parents who have tried to navigate the system for years and this is their last resort..." Years ago, Depression-battered parents would buy bus fares for their children and hand them a sign, "Take Me to Boys Town". Father Flannagan's original safe haven, BoysTown, is based in Omaha, NE.
Boes told Time that one root of the abandonment problem is that there just isn't enough help for parents in crisis. In Nebraska there are only six child psychiatrists in the whole state, he says. "It's a national problem...insurance often won't pay after six visits -- so if the kid's not fixed, you're out of luck. States have a jumble of services. It's a puzzle with missing pieces."
Parents who left their kids in Nebraska should not be demonized, said Boes.The sad truth is that families and advocates say there is an horrible lack of resources for families facing difficulties including mental illnesses and behavioral problems -- violence, suicidal tendencies and aggression. Executive director of the Nebraska Family Support Network, Eve Bleyhl, told the Omaha World-Herald that she hears concerns daily from families coping with similar problems:
Families get shuttled from provider to provider and back again;
Families are refused help because they have no insurance or their insurance ran out or it doesn't cover the needed service;
Families have been told the state can't step in unless their child commits a crime or is being abused or neglected.
"There's not enough places to turn," Bleyhl said. "We see the families who have exhausted all their avenues."
Surely, we are compassionate and intelligent enough to realize that most, if not all, of the families who have used the safe haven law are facing severe crisis and some are in real danger. Regardless of the state we live in, we cannot continue to sweep these children under the rug or out the door. Now that we know,we cannot be as willing to just walk away. Or, can we?