Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The latest word in cruelty to children: Nebraska

At the rate things are going, it may become a verb: to "Nebraska" one's children, meaning, to become so utterly desperate that you drop off children of any age at a hospital, anywhere from Omaha to Scottsbluff, then turn around and leave.

    "Did you hear about Fred and Susan?" a neighbor might say. "They both lost their jobs, their home was foreclosed and they got so desperate they had to Nebraska their children."

    In one sense it all began when Nebraska became the last state to pass a so-called "safe haven" law. Such laws were intended to prevent people from abandoning infants in dumpsters, by letting them leave newborns at hospitals, fire stations and other designated locations, no questions asked. But the Nebraska law didn't specify infants. So some parents left older children, often teenagers. One 18-year-old was so desperate to get help he even tried to "abandon" himself. And as the situation began attracting national attention, twice (so far) parents and grandparents began arriving from other states to use the law and leave a child behind.

    So much is so sickening about this that it's hard to know where to begin. There's the head of the state human services agency, who thought the suffering of so many families was an opportunity for sick humor, there's the judge whose astonishing ignorance made one family's suffering even worse, or there's the fact that, with hindsight, it's entirely predictable that the state where this would happen would be Nebraska, among the cruelest states in the nation when it comes to treatment of vulnerable children and families.

    But it may be best to begin with the possibility that Nebraska inadvertently wound up doing such families, all over the country, a favor – not by inventing a new form of child abandonment, but by calling attention to desperation that's always been there, and practices that have always existed.

    On Sept. 28, the Omaha World-Herald, which has done excellent work on this story from the start, published brief profiles of all the families who had used the law to that point. There is every indication that every parent or guardian involved in these cases dearly loved their children. The common theme is desperation. Most of the cases involved parents or guardians at their wits end coping with the violent behavior of mentally ill teenagers. One case, involving nine children, involved an impoverished widowed father at the end of his rope. In that case, the World-Herald reports, the family had been desperate before:

In March 2004, the children were placed in foster care because their home was filthy and had no gas, running water or phone. Court-appointed psychologists noted that the couple cared for their children deeply. But the two couldn't find stable work, so they didn't have enough income to pay bills and rent. The father looked for a second job to supplement his income. Without a high school diploma or a GED, he found good work hard to come by.

Had the state of Nebraska lifted a finger to help with these concrete problems in 2004, perhaps the father wouldn't have thought his only option was to surrender the children to foster care again last month – after his wife died. (Later, relatives would say the father could have turned to them – but when the state itself actually tried to do that – the only thing it's done right in this whole mess - a judge got in the way, a story I'll try to get to in a future post.)

    But one of the many tragedies of American child welfare is that parents like this father and the others in Nebraska have been taking such desperate measures for a century or more.

When I wrote my book on child welfare, Wounded Innocents, (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995) nearly 20 years ago I cited an Orlando Sentinel story about a mother in Florida who desperately loved her two children, four-year-old Lisa and two-year-old Amanda, but was homeless. Fearing that the state would take them away, she "voluntarily" surrendered them, to the state, at first temporarily. "She figured giving the kids up for temporary custody was her best chance of keeping them," the Sentinel reported.

"Lisa and Amanda's mother visited them at the church day care facility every day. By fall she was talking to a church worker about giving the girls up for adoption. Because she thought that "was going to be better for them than anything she could ever give to them. She did love the girls. If she could give them up, they could be taken care of, sent to college," the worker said. … The girls said their mother "'had water in her eyes' when she said goodbye. The mother left a necklace - a chain with a big heart and two little ones - behind as a remembrance. She told Lisa to tell Amanda that she loved her. And she left."

    More recently, many newspapers, including the World-Herald, have done excellent stories and series on parents who have no choice but to surrender their children to the tender mercies of the state because it's the only way to get them mental health care. It happens thousands of times ever year but, except for those occasional news stories, it goes almost unnoticed.

    In the recent Nebraska cases, had the "Safe Haven" law not been available, odds are the parents or guardians would have resorted to some other less publicized means to surrender their children. So Nebraska lawmakers have at least brought the problem out into the open – albeit by accident. In that state, calls to revise the law are being accompanied by calls to give parents better options.

    But the latter will be a much tougher sell, particularly in Nebraska. Because while such problems exist everywhere, odds are they're worse in Nebraska, a state where even the top human services official seems to revel in condemning the desperate and adding a little extra pain to all they've suffered already. There seems to be a Nebraska mentality that says: If a family can't do everything on its own it's no good, so we should take the child and run, or encourage the parents themselves to turn them over to the state, then turn around and condemn them for it. This can be seen in the comments of Todd Landry, children and family services director for the state's Department of Health and Human Services, who insisted that the case of a desperate, widowed, unemployed, impoverished father of nine has nothing to do with poverty – and who snidely dismissed all of the parents as just being "tired of their parenting roles."

    Landry was far more generous in his assessment of the state's own ability as parent. In one case, involving a young man who had been bounced from one "residential treatment center" to another, until he aged out of the system, at a cost of more than $265,000 Landry praised the young man's care saying "All appropriate services were provided when needed for as long as needed." He actually said this after the young man, Robert Hawkins, shot and killed eight people, and then himself, at an Omaha shopping mall. (And, by the way, Hawkins' father only surrendered the boy to the state when his health insurance ran out and he couldn't afford mental health care for the boy.)

    But it's not just Landry's insensitivity that suggests the state is exceptionally cruel – just look at the numbers. Over and over again, Nebraska is a contender for child removal capital of America. Year after year, whether one calculates the figures based on total child population or impoverished child population, Nebraska tears apart families and throws children into foster care at one of the highest rates in the country. And, when one looks simply at the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, again, Nebraska is among the very worst. (One of the out-of-state children left in Nebraska came from a neighboring state with statistics that are almost as bad, and a human services agency that is almost as cruel: Iowa. And, sure enough, a spokesman for Iowa's human services agency sounded almost as callous as Landry, declaring that the Nebraska law "doesn't mean you should throw up your hands and stop being a parent and haul your recalcitrant teenager over to Omaha when the going gets rough." But at least Iowa took the child back, let her stay with her family and now promises help.)

    Still another indication of the Nebraska mentality can be seen in the case of a 12-year-old who was released from eleven months of "residential treatment" at an Omaha hospital two- and-a-half weeks ago. According to the World-Herald, his grandmother said there was no improvement – not surprising given what the research says about residential treatment. On Sunday, the grandmother says, the boy tried to kill himself by cutting his wrist with a nail. Earlier he'd threatened to kill a neighbor boy. So grandma asked the boy's aunt to take him back to the hospital – for treatment. Grandma says the hospital simply assumed she was abandoning the child under the "safe haven" law. Now she has no say in what happens to him, and the boy has been stashed in a group home.

Perhaps the notoriety will prompt Nebraska lawmakers finally to rethink not only the safe haven law but their entire take-the-child-and-run approach to vulnerable children and families.

    In future posts, I'll write about that judge who made everything worse, about Landry's astonishingly cruel sense of humor, and about a mother who replied eloquently to Landry. In the meantime, one can only hope no other parent becomes so desperate that she believes her only choice is to Nebraska her children.