Abandoning Your Child

Ken AshfordSex/Morality/Family ValuesLeave a Comment

An infant found in a hospital bathroom, a newborn baby left on a family's front porch, a baby boy discovered on the grounds of an elementary school….These are examples of baby abandonment, a phenomenon that has attracted increased attention in the United States over the past several years.

Statistics on the frequency of this are not available, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it has been on the rise.

State legislatures throughout the country have addressed the issue in a number of ways.  Obviously, criminalization of the practice is enforced, but that doesn't address the needs of the baby who gets abandoned (despite the law).  To address that latter concern, many state legislatures have adopted so-called "safe haven" laws, which permit a parent to abandon their child without prosecution.

The laws vary from state to state.  In North Carolina, for example, the child must be less than 7 days old, and must be relinquished to a health care professional (i.e., hospital), law enforcement person, or social worker.  If the parent does this, she will be immune from proscution for abandoment.  (Yes, it's ugly, but it's better than the alternative — we've all read about newborn babies being found in dumpsters).  Other states allow parental abandonment when the baby is as old as 1 year.

The State of Nebraska has come under the spotlight for its "safe haven" law because it has no age limit.  In other words, parents can give up custody of their teenagers, so long as it is done within the confines of the law (that is, the child is relinquished to a hospital or the like).

This has opened up a can of worms.  The law took effect this past July, and seven teenagers were relinquished to the state over the summer. 

The controversial policy went to a new level when a Michigan couple dropped off their adopted but unwanted 13 year old son in Nebraska.  Another out-of-state teen has also been relinquished in Nebraska.

[Just a little bit of free legal advice here: if you live outside of Nebraska, don't think you can abandon your child in Nebraska and be protected under Nebraska's "safe haven" laws.  You can't.  You'll be subject to your own state's law on child/teen abandonment, as the Michigan couple has found out.]

Many believe that Nebraska screwed up by having no age limitation for the "safe haven" law.  Others think that Nebraska is forging new moral ground, because it protects unwanted children of ALL ages, many of whom are subject to incestual molestation or child abuse.  (My cousin, Nebraska State Senator Brad Ashford, who voted for the law, falls into the latter category).

The Nebraska approach definitely forges new ground, and the law will no doubt be scrutinized as more data is gathered about its consequences. 

But it raises an interesting question: "Should the state force parents to keep their unwanted children, even if those children are teenagers?"

For me, I think any answer should be based on one overriding factor — what is in the best interest of the minor child.  It seems to me — and I'm just spitballing here — that if your parents don't WANT their teen, that teen is probably better off in the long term, psychologically and emotionally, without them.  It seems that the alternative — foster parents (or a foster home) — is infinitely preferable to being raised in a home where your parents simply don't give a crap.  (And obviously, if there IS child abuse present, it's a no-brainer).

But what of the parents?  The ones who legally relinquish their teenager?  Well, it might be easy to cast aspersions on their motive, and wish upon them a special place in hell. 

But imagine this scenario: Jimmy is ten years old, and his parents die in an auto accident.  Thereafter, he is raised by his grandmother.  He has no other relatives.  Years later, when Jimmy is sixteen, his grandmother suffers from a serious stroke.  She can no longer take care of Jimmy.  Lacking the funds and resources to engage in the long drawn-out process of private adoption, Jimmy's grandmother takes advantage of the safe haven law and "dumps" Jimmy at the local hospital.

Any problem with that?  I see none.  Works to everyone's benefit, including that of society.

[For a different view, read this rant]

I suspect that Nebraska is going to have to revisit its law, and possibly "up" the requirements for child relinquishment as the child gets older, if for no other reason than to curb the possibility (real or imagined) of widespread teen "dumping".