Monday, October 29, 2007

Dumb and dumber in Indianapolis

A four-month-old baby in Indianapolis is in lots and lots of pain from teething. She’s crying for hours. Nothing seems to work. So her mother tries a folk remedy: swabbing whisky on the baby’s gums. (The belief that this helps apparently is widespread. A Google search for “whisky and gums and teething” produced 17,700 hits, including articles trying to dissuade parents from the idea). So mom tries it. It doesn’t work.

But then things take a serious turn for the worse. According to the baby’s grandmother, mom then figures if applying whisky to the gums doesn’t work, maybe putting it in the baby formula will. The baby passed out. The mother calls an ambulance. According to police, the baby had a blood-alcohol level of 0.048. Fortunately the baby was unharmed.

"She wasn't doing anything to hurt the baby, and she thought she was helping the baby because the baby had been up all night crying," the grandmother told Indianapolis television station WRTV. "It wasn't anything in malice or intent to harm in any way, shape or form."

What the mother did was dumb, and it was dangerous. What the child protective services agency did was dumber – and also dangerous: They took away the baby.

That’s bad enough anyplace, it’s worse in Indianapolis, where every child removed from the home is parked first at an orphanage. The younger the child, the greater the potential for enormous emotional trauma from separation. That, of course, is without even reaching the issue of the rate of abuse in foster care and orphanages. And, though it is hard to tell from the news account, it appears the child was placed with strangers, and not with her grandmother, which at least might have cushioned the blow.

The point here is not that the child welfare agency should have done nothing. If a mother can make one dumb, dangerous mistake like this, she might make another. But instead of taking the baby out of the home, how about bringing help into the home.

It wouldn’t take the kind of intensive help I usually recommend, either. All that might be needed is the kind of Healthy Families America home visiting approach that the child welfare establishment is always talking about. (This program gets good results; the model which uses trained nurses to do the visits does better.)

Law enforcement did not exactly acquit itself well either. The mother faces criminal charges not only for neglect, but also for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”