Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nebraska Must Not Change Child Safe Haven Law

Ridiculed by most of the media in the nation after passing one of the most comprehensive and sweeping child safe haven laws ever, the State of Nebraska nevertheless went ahead and signed the legislation into law. Being the last state to sign this type of legislation intended to prevent child abuse before it started, Nebraska's law goes much further than most other states in that not only infants could be dropped off at so called 'safe haven' sites such as hospitals, but the wording also permits the safe drop offs of older children as well.

Since taking effect, 16 children of varying ages have been left at safe havens. In one case, a father of nine dropped all of his children off, and the media had a field day. But while reporting on the case of Gary Staton, the father who left his kids, aged one through seventeen, at Creighton Medical Center, they didn't tell the whole story. In an attempt to titillate the reader or viewer, they merely reported the fact that the children were left, and used the case to try to illustrate why the Nebraska law was backwards and needed to be change.

Mr. Staton is a single father to those nine children. He also has another daughter, who is 18 years old, and who, after the death of her mother, became the primary caretaker of the rest of her siblings. His wife of 17 years died last year, a woman for whom Gary would have gladly given his life for. Inconsolable, he fell into a deep depression, and stopped being able to take care of himself, let alone the children, who had to depend upon each other to survive. Gary ended up losing his job, and with the bills piling up, made the decision to take advantage of the new law by taking the children somewhere that he knew they would be safe.

Not the act of some irresponsible man as the media tried to portray him, Mr. Staton did what he did out of love and concern for the well being of those children, and it was only after all of the media attention that relatives stepped forward to heroically claim the kids. Where were they before the storm gathered and the crisis of mind became intolerable for Mr. Staton?

Other kids were being left at hospitals in Omaha and Lincoln, kids a little older than one would normally expect. With the media breathing down their necks, the politicians began to backpedal and some now speak of the need to change the wording of the law. But if changed to what others may deem to be 'acceptable' age limits for children to be safely left at these havens, what will happen to the older children who are in a very bad situation? The very nature of the law was to safeguard against abuse of children, and how will any change in the law accomplish that? Will we say that we will allow for the dropping off of children up to five years old, but not children who are five years and one week?

The argument that a lot of people are struggling and must be forced to raise their own children, with the mentality of 'pulling yourself up by your boot straps' are ridiculous, and must be ignored. Because despite the way the Staton story was presented to the public, those children were clearly in danger and it took courage to recognize that and bring them to others who could and would care for them properly. The same holds true for the other kids who have been left with hospital staff. Should we force parents who are either unable or unwilling to care for their young to keep them in an environment wherein they may be subjected to neglect and abuse? Where the core values of these kids might have been warped and twisted and we allow for the raising of more maladjusted young adults set loose upon an increasingly maladjusted society? Or would it not be better to allow these young ones to have a chance at a better life?

Any time a new law is passed, especially laws that allow for an escape hatch such as this law gives, there is going to be an initial rash of people who see a chance to get themselves out of a bad situation. This is normal, and will eventually subside as more parents are made aware of other options available to them. The course to take here is a public education campaign, not a changing of the law to appease those who could care less about the safety of potentially abused children, but only in headlines or catcalling from the sidelines. Politicians are never going to please everyone with every law they pass, but in the case of Nebraska's safe haven laws that allow for greater protections for children than any other state, they clearly got it right the first time. There is no need to revisit this law, and in fact, other states would do well to adopt it.

Because in the end, if a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol can have the cognizant thought that they are not doing the right thing for their children, and needs to get the child or children to safety has a place they can bring them without the draconian measures of arresting them for doing the right thing, they are twice as likely to do so before abusive behaviour begins. The same holds true for parents or guardians who are in the position of Mr. Staton, who clearly understood he was incapable of acting as a responsible parent, and out of love, let his children go. If Nebraska takes this hard fought for safety net for children away due to pressure from far right wingnuts and the media, then the State of Nebraska will be endangering the very children they wished to protect in the first place.

Maybe it's not the Nebraska law that needs to be changed, but the thinking of those who label what is intended to help children as 'abandonment' and 'shucking responsibility'. Maybe it's the mindset of those who can not imagine ever doing something like that themselves, that is, until a situation like that of Mr. Staton comes along. Maybe proponents of changing the law in Nebraska because it was intended to save kids who are in 'immediate danger' need to explicitly explain the parameters of 'immediate danger' for the rest of us. Because if leaving 9 children in the care of a depressed, overwhelmed, barely functional father is not leaving them smack dab in the middle of 'immediate danger', then we need to redefine the meaning of that phrase also. Maybe the real problem is that there aren't more laws geared towards the actual protection of children, and maybe you can force your state's legislature to adopt laws that will provide a safety net for parents BEFORE abuse starts and not after.

No. Changing Nebraska's safe haven law is not the answer. Giving it time to settle is. In this time of fiscal uncertainty, it serves to save resources in the form of less police manpower having to go on ride alongs with social workers to remove children from homes where the situation became so bad, that the children were being abused. It serves to free up those same social workers to be able to work on cases where parents don't take advantage of the law, and keep their little ones in harm's way. It serves to give unwanted kids a chance to have a happier childhood, which is then reflected in their ability to contribute to society, rather than become maladjusted criminal types who clog up our courts and cost taxpayers to house them through their adulthoods in prisons. In the words of Herbert Ward "Child abuse cast a shadow the length of a lifetime".

While this argument will probably never change the minds of those who are too short sighted to see farther down the road than the immediate future, it does hopefully give pause to the knee jerk reaction of those who are crying out the old "See, I told you so" anthem. Because while they chant that anthem over and over and try to force the State of Nebraska to tow the national child safe haven law line, I'm reminded of another anthem by Pink Floyd that goes "Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone...............................!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nebraska doesn't need to change its safe haven law, it just needs to promulgate some health and human services regulations that will fit two sets needs.
First need is for babies, maybe less then a month old, who get abandoned at birth. Just copy any of teh other 49 states with similar safe haven laws for that.
Over 30 months the HHS needs to start a child in need of services regulation. Most states have CHINS laws/regulations, so they can just copy those. The inception of a hospital as a place to begin this isn't a bad idea either.