Thursday, September 25, 2008

Unintended Consequences

After seeing this news item about the 11 children who have been abandoned by their parents at the local hospital emergency room here in my home state, I am so not proud to be a Nebraskan. Seems that this is perfectly legal under the new "Safe Haven" law that went into effect here recently. And it was championed through the state legislature by none other than the state senator from my own district, the esteemed Arnie Stuthman. In fact, he made it a top priority bill. His intentions, of course, were good. For those unwanted infants that might otherwise get abused or dumped somewhere unsafe, let the parents drop them off at a hospital. With no legal consequences. Let the state take care of them. Of course several other states have similar laws on the books. It all sounds so compassionate and right, doesn't it?

But once again, the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Did anyone think that people would be dropping off their teenage kids to get rid of them, legally? Probably not. But in an effort to not be too restrictive, the language used in the law stated that it applied to "children", which has been interpreted now to mean anyone under the age of 19. So to date there have been 16 kids abandoned by their parents or guardians, aged 1 to 17. Completely legally. In fact the director of the state human services said this: "It was the parents not wanting to continue the journey with their kids." Drop 'em off and walk away. And apparently no legal recourse against the so-called parents. They're free to get on with their lives, to "continue their own journey."

One could argue that these kids are better off, that they obviously weren't wanted in the first place and so at least now they are "safe." Again, sound so compassionate, doesn't it. Except that the state admits that none of these kids were in any danger. So what has this law really accomplished? It has in effect given dysfunctional and struggling parents and guardians a way out, an easy way to be rid of problem kids and be off the hook. It in fact encourages child abandonment, and takes away any remaining restraint that a parent or guardian of a difficult or less than wanted child might have. And it assumes that the state social services and foster care system is a better, "safer" place for these kids than a dysfunctional family. Which might be true in some cases, but certainly not all.

And consider this angle. Say you're a youngster in a family whose parents are, well, less than perfect. Which could include a whole lot of kids. And you hear about this kind of thing, kids your own age getting dumped at hospitals by their parents, scot free. What is this going to do for your sense of security? Not much, I would think. I wouldn't doubt that there are some not-so-gifted parents that might even use this as a threat against their kids. Honestly, is this really, truly in the best interest of the children of Nebraska?

The reality is this: any law that makes it easy and legal to shirk God-ordained responsibilities to the family is a bad thing. It will have all kinds of unintended, but real and damaging, consequences. I can only hope that the spectacle of entire families of children being abandoned legally will cause our state senators to reflect on these facts and make corrections to this fiasco of a law. And the next time I have the opportunity, I will certainly once again cast my vote for anyone running against erstwhile Arnie.

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