Seeking a Safe Haven- Parents abandon teens under a Nebraska law passed to save babies.

In July, Nebraska instituted a “safe haven” law that allows parents to leave a child at a hospital without fear of prosecution. The law was intended to allow parents to safely abandon infants they could not take care of, and many states have similar laws. However, the Nebraska law did not specify that it applied only to babies, and in September and October, as many as 25 parents dropped off older children at hospitals, saying that because of behavior problems and financial woes, they could no longer care for their children.

As reported in the Omaha World-Herald, one of the first eye-opening cases came when Gary Staton gave up 9 of his children, ages 1 to 17, due to financial and personal despair. Since then, even parents from other states have driven teenagers to hospitals in Nebraska and left them there.

Nebraska politicians are now saying that they did not intend to make it legal for parents to abandon teens or other older children. They are now considering changing the law to apply only to babies under 30 days old.

A Window Into Despair

While many have harshly criticized these parents—Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Todd Landry told USA Today, “They were tired of their parenting role”—others have said the law has opened a window into the despair many parents feel.

Nebraska State Senator Tom White told the Omaha World-Herald, “The Legislature and this administration have to acknowledge that a lot of our families are in desperate situations , and we need to do something about that.”

Is the law being abused by people who do not want to take care of their older children? Perhaps.

But when I heard about the situation in Nebraska, I could understand how parents could feel desperate enough to take such a drastic step.

We Couldn’t Get Help

I left my own child at a psychiatric hospital in Illinois because I feared bringing him home and could not get the Illinois Department of Children and Families to place him in a residential treatment center so that he and my other children could be safe. (You can read my story at LINK)

Only by leaving my son, and getting charged with neglect, was I able to get him the help he needed. That experience made me feel so angry at child protective services, which is supposed to protect children. To me, that includes protecting children’s mental health and it includes protecting the siblings of an out of control child.

Child welfare agencies blast their mission of protecting children on every piece of propaganda. They promise help through hotlines and community services. But sometimes when families desperately need help from the child welfare system, they can’t get the help they need.

Last Resort

Many families used the Nebraska law as a last resort for dealing with what media reports have called “unmanageable children.” These families are not referring to common teenage problems such as staying out too late or ditching school. Like my son, some of their kids were physically and mentally out of control beyond what average parents can handle, even with therapy and other outside services.

What can parents do when even the people who answer the hotline don’t know how to help? Where can they turn when community services don’t make a difference in a child’s hostile behavior and once they have exhausted every resource available?

In our case, we could not get residential treatment for our son covered by our health insurance plan or by the state. Residential treatment costs in excess of $80,000 per year. We were faced with the choice of giving up our child or going into lifelong debt.

Services Kids Need

Most states lack funding for mental health care. It is very hard for families to get the services they need for seriously troubled children.

The best scenario for all kids is to get proper and appropriate care while staying connected with loved ones. That’s what my son is getting now. He is in a residential treatment program, but we talk with him daily and visit regularly.

My son is doing much better now. He had his first home visit recently. It was great. We enjoyed a meal, he played the piano, we laughed and joked and sang. For those two hours, it was just like family should be.

I believe that no parent wants to abandon a child. But sometimes it’s impossible to get appropriate care without the child welfare system stepping in. Child welfare agencies can access services that parents and guardians cannot. Until we can find appropriate solutions without child welfare involvement, parents are going to do an illegal or seemingly unconscionable things in order to do the right thing.