- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Georgia woman drove hundreds of miles to get rid of hers. A Miami man flew to drop his off. One Nebraska man dumped seven on a hospital doorstep. One woman, who had thrown her hands up in frustration, had second thoughts and wanted hers back.

We’re talking about children, some as old as 17.

No more of this nonsense. As of Friday, distressed and destitute parents will no longer be able to abandon children older than 30 days in Nebraska, as had been allowed under a safe-haven law designed to save newborns.

Talk about bailouts. Can you imagine discarding your child like a bad debt?

Remember when every politician played the “saving the children” song? During the lengthy presidential campaign, you heard little about child-centered initiatives, save some passing reference to helping special-needs children because of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s baby with Down syndrome.

Crime, particularly that committed at the youthful hands of out-of-control and out-of-bounds juveniles, was hardly mentioned. While there were plenty of predictions about which public policy issues President-elect Barack Obama will tackle first, few focused on the troubling mental and moral state of dysfunctional and overwhelmed families.

All is not well here.

We can’t blame everything on the bad economy. However, if ever there was an SOS sign that Americans are not coping well under higher levels of stress, due in part to dwindling dollars, it is surely evident in the number of children abandoned in Nebraska — 36 — since the safe-haven law was passed in July.

Ironically, not a single one of those children relinquished was an infant, said Tracey Johnson, executive director of the National Alliance of Safe Havens. Besides, she added, Nebraska has one of the best social service networks in the country that provides temporary foster care until parents and children “can get their heads back together.”

The laws to prevent so-called “Dumpster babies,” as Mrs. Johnson said, were “not supposed to be used for dropping kids off forever because you are at your wit’s end.”

But one Iowa woman left her pregnant granddaughter in Nebraska, where the baby’s father lives, as a disciplinary tactic, Mrs. Johnson noted. One Omaha father left his children, ages 1 to 17, to be wards of the state because he could no longer feed them after their mother died. Some parents reportedly tricked their children and did not tell them they were about to be on their own — parents who definitely ought to face legal charges.

You wonder where are other family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners and co-workers to help these edgy people. Probably wrestling with their stresses.

Last week these unintended yet unconscionable consequences caused the Nebraska Legislature to hold a special session just to amend its safe-haven law so that the law will apply only to infants up to 30 days old. With the glaring exception of the District of Columbia, this state was the last in the nation to pass a law allowing mothers, usually teenagers, to drop off their infants at hospitals anonymously and without facing prosecution.

Only Nebraska lawmakers went a step farther. They did not place an age limit on the measure because they wanted to protect all children, obviously not realizing the resources they already had in place. So the state got more than it bargained for as some parents crossed state lines to take advantage of the loophole that allowed them to pass off a lot of unruly teens.

We live in a society, Mrs. Johnson said during our long-ranging chat, “where it’s easy to divorce yourself from the things you don’t want on the Internet with a click of a button.” That includes spouses, elderly parents and now children.

Even if frustrated parents are not taking the dead-end route to dump their teens in some social service network, said Satira Streeter, founder and executive director of Ascensions Community Services, “parents are abandoning them psychologically … and emotionally divorcing themselves from their children … because they feel so helpless.”

Just last week, Ms. Streeter, who operates the nonprofit mental health facility in the District’s Southeast, met with two clients who said either “the streets have taken over or their peer group had taken over” about their misbehaving sons. And “they asked me ‘where can I take them; I don’t know what else to do,’ ” Ms. Streeter said.

One of the women, Ms. Streeter pointed out, was a mother whose son attends Anacostia High School, where last week five students were injured, three of them stabbed, during a melee outside as city leaders, parents and educators met inside the building for a forum on juvenile violence.

Like many of the mothers she counsels, this mother said she “washed her hands” of her son and decided to concentrate on her younger children. Still, this mother, unlike those who saw Nebraska as a teen drop-off depot, does not have the heart to put him out. Many parents simply do not know what resources are available, and numerous jurisdictions do not do a good job of advertising their services, Mrs. Johnson said.

On the other end of the spectrum in the District, Mrs. Johnson has sought unsuccessfully to get city leaders to adopt a measure to give desperate mothers an alternative to leaving their newborns out to die.

“We just want a law; we don’t want money,” Mrs. Johnson said, adding that not spending enough time with our children and “not having the right priorities may be catching up with us.”

True, government can’t play nanny, and solutions to family stresses do start at home. But the incoming Obama administration, especially Tom Daschle and Eric Holder, the respective presumed nominees for Health and Human Services secretary and attorney general, have their work cut out for them to assist desperate parents.

After all, what does it say about a morally bankrupt society when babies, as well as teens, are tossed out like toilet tissue? Worse, what lasting message does this trend send to the abandoned children? It’s not a good one: We don’t honor our commitment or our responsibilities to the vulnerable people in our lives any more than we do to our clients or our creditors.

Mr. Obama can remind us that we need to “save the children.” But regardless of spending programs, he does so most explicitly through the example he and his wife set of responsible parenthood.

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