Monday, November 3, 2008

Abandonment Issues: What's Wrong - Or Right - With Nebraska's Safe Harbor Law?

We’re all familiar lately with the ongoing saga of the State of Nebraska. Effective July 1st of this year, they passed what is commonly knows as a Safe Harbor law. Like most similar states’ laws, it allows a parent or guardian of a child to drop the child off unharmed at an approved location (in this case a hospital) without fear of prosecution, thus terminating their parental rights. Unlike most states, the Nebraska law did not contain an age limit. Therefore, children up to the age of majority (18 years old) could be brought in and left by their parents. Most states limit the age to newborn status – 10 days old or less. In addition to the age oversight, the Nebraska law did not require the person dropping off a child to be a Nebraska resident.

What has ensued over the past four months has been a series of unintended consequences. Over 20 children have now been left at Nebraska hospitals from families hundreds of miles away. One mother flew her child in from Arizona. One mother drove 12 hours from Wisconsin with her child. One father turned over eight (yes eight) of his children. This leads to the other, perhaps larger issue. Many of these children – most in fact – are well over 10 days old. Most are pre-teen or teenagers.

Hearing nurses at these hospitals describe how an 11 year old boy wept and begged for his mother not to leave him as she walked out the door, or how the mother of 14-year old simply drove up and made her child walk in without her and then drove away, how can one not be affected; not want to demand action? So, the Nebraska governor has called an emergency session of the legislature to fix the problem and most believe the age limit will be reset to accommodate only those children up to three days old.

While I commend the state’s desire to do something, I have to question if this is a merely a band-aid to cloak the underlying injury? As one state legislator so astutely observed, perhaps there is something bigger at play here if within four months more than 20 children have been turned over by their parents to a governmental body? Maybe in fact this has saved children’s lives or least saved them from abuse by parents unwilling or unable to care for them. I just cannot help but think that this law served as an unintentional pilot program for an unknown but needed solution. If people are driving twelve hours or paying to fly across country, something larger is in play here.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that people should be free to give children up just because they don’t feel like being parents any longer. I am not. But what I am saying is that right or wrong, people are out there in droves willing to do so. And maybe that is the best solution for that child. It seems that in America we are quick to say that everyone is responsible for their own actions – especially in the realm of child rearing – but we’re not willing to address what to do when people who are ill-equipped to make those decisions do so anyway. Yet everyone shakes their head and clucks their tongues when the next big story of child abuse or murder appears in local papers.

For some reason I cannot turn away from the story of poor little Caylee Anthony. It has gripped me (and many others) more than most anything I've seen since the days of Susan Smith. I've heard the evidence of her mother referring to her a "little snot head" just days before her disappearance; I've seen the photos of her mother, in the days after Caylee disappeared, partying in clubs, throwing up in toilets, and participating in "hot body" contests. I don't think there are many left who don't think Casey Anthony had something to do with her daughter's disappearance and feared death. Maybe if there were more Nebraska-like Safe Harbor laws, Caylee would be alive and well today?

Does it make it “right” or “ok” to give up your child when they are 13 years old? No. But does it make it ok for someone with no job, no stable income, no place to live and an abusive relationship to have a child? No. The child should not have to suffer for that. Maybe what we’re seeing here is an unintended sociological experiment and perhaps instead of crying “foul” we should more closely examine the variables behind the data.

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