- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

Since September, a handful of parents and guardians have been using Nebraska’s “safe haven” law to turn their teenagers and schoolchildren over to state care without facing criminal charges.

The new law - in effect since July - is intended to keep unwanted newborns out of trash cans. But the legislative language said it applied to “children,” not just “infants,” and as of Nov. 4, some 27 children - none of whom are newborns - have been abandoned.

Nebraska lawmakers plan to fix the law later this month so it applies only to newborns.

But what about the 19 families - several of whom drove in from other states - who handed over their children? Doesn’t this say something about an unmet need?

I recently got some advice from people on the front lines of child welfare, but let’s take a closer look at these adults who decided a Nebraska hospital was a better place for their kids to stay than their homes.

Gary Staton, for instance, dropped off nine children, age 1 to 17, because he couldn’t go on after his wife’s death.

“I was with her for 17 years, and then she was gone,” Mr. Staton told a Nebraska TV station. “I didn’t think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn’t take care of them.”

The Statons’ story is tragic; what about the others? According to the Omaha World-Herald, which has been tracking the drop-offs closely, the kids are violent, suicidal, exhibiting bizarre behavior, lying, stealing, destroying property and generally frightening the daylights out of the adults, several of whom are grandmothers.

In fact, this is a common thread - of the 17 identified adults who dropped off a child, 13 were women (mother, grandmother, aunt). Ten of the children these women dropped off were boys - one nephew and the rest sons or grandsons.

There’s a lesson in here, folks. Did any of these distressed families have a loving, competent father in the home?

It’s also apparent, from the Omaha World-Herald’s reporting, that most of these adults sincerely tried to get help for their children.

Some parents said they couldn’t afford mental-health services, or their insurance wouldn’t cover it. One mother, for instance, said her 11-year-old son could only get insurance for short-term psychiatric stays when he clearly needed longer treatment.

This insurance problem should be now ameliorated by a just-enacted federal law that requires insurance companies to give “parity” treatment to physical and mental illnesses.

Virtually all the parents said they had gone in endless circles seeking help. A few were told they couldn’t get help for their child unless he or she committed a crime. A few were even advised by authorities to use the new safe-haven law so they could get their child into the system.

Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs at the Child Welfare League of America, said parents should ask early and often for help.

Mental illness carries a stigma, she acknowledged, but under the new federal mental-health parity law, families should be able to “go to their doctor and ask for help and get a referral to a therapist” who is covered by their insurance.

Another new law, dubbed “Fostering Connections,” will fund programs designed to help parents and relatives navigate child welfare systems and make decisions for kids as a family.

“You don’t have to drive to Nebraska,” Ms. Spears said. Keep calling people and before long, “you’ll find someone who understands.”

Pat O’Brien, founder and executive director of You Gotta Believe! The Older Child Adoption & Permanency Movement, in New York, says parents must understand that abandoning their children is utterly unacceptable.

It’s especially important to act on a child’s behalf before they turn 18, he said, “because if they’re under 18, you can get them diagnosed and you can get them treatment.”

“Once you take abandonment off the table,” he added, “opportunities will come.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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