It’s a scene often found in fiction: A desperate woman, alone and usually dressed in dingy clothes, places an infant, swathed in a blanket, on the stoop of a building. She rings the doorbell, kisses the child goodbye and dashes out of sight just as the door opens.
Sometimes that scene plays out in real life. All states have some type of Safe Haven law, which allows parents to drop off infants at hospitals and other secure locations, no questions asked.
The scene played out differently in Nebraska last year. In July 2008, the state enacted a Safe Haven law that stated that any child could be abandoned at a hospital. The law did not state an age limit, and, as a consequence, parents – some from out of state – took that as license to drop off teenagers they said they couldn’t handle. Between July and November 2008, 36 children were dropped off in Nebraska, none of whom was an infant.
While many onlookers viewed the situation as irresponsible parenting, others could feel only sympathy for parents of troubled children.
Nebraska juvenile court judge Elizabeth Crnkovich presided over several Safe Haven cases. In a recent interview, she emphasized that she was not surprised that teenagers were abandoned. Furthermore, she said such action was unnecessary – Nebraska and other states offer custody relinquishment for families dealing with children with seemingly intractable problems.
“What’s significant about these cases of the kids dropped off under Safe Haven is that they are no different from the cases with these dynamics that we’ve always been getting for the last 30 or 40 years,” she said.
“What troubled me more than anything is that when these kids started getting dropped off, the focus was more on their troubled behavior, as though that warranted being abandoned, and less on how traumatic it was for these children to be abandoned.”
Crnkovich said custody relinquishment is an alternative to abandonment, which is devastating to a child. “Almost to a child, they were hurt and dismayed and angry,” she said of the abandoned children.
Custody relinquishment is a legal act where custody is given to the state temporarily so that services can be retained for a child, she explained. That is very different from abandoning a child, which “is to not provide for them and to have no contact with them, no financial, emotional or psychological contact with them, for a period in excess of six months.”
According to Crnkovich, publicity surrounding the Safe Haven cases often focused on the child’s problems, but the trouble was generally with the family.
“Each of these cases ultimately ended up before a juvenile judge, and there are many family dynamics that if are not the cause of the problem, at a minimum are contributing to the problem,” she said.
So how are these parents and teenagers today?
“A year later, some of the parents aren’t cooperating. A year later, most of the kids are still in care and they’re doing pretty good.”
Assistant Editor: Joi Officer, 15.
Y-Press Copyright 2009