Leonard Pitts: Overstressed parents need help

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 28, 2008

At one level, it sounds like a very bad joke. In September, a safe haven law took effect in the state of Nebraska allowing parents to leave their children at hospitals without fear of prosecution. This, as a means of saving the lives of unwanted newborns that would otherwise be left in garbage heaps and motel rooms or simply murdered outright. Nebraska was the last state in the union to pass such a law, and unlike the other 49 states, it did not limit the ages of children that could be legally abandoned.
You’ve heard what happened next: 36 kids have since been left at Nebraska hospitals. Most were older than 11. Some had severe mental and behavioral problems. Some had been transported hundreds of miles across the country by parents desperate to be rid of them.
A few days ago, Nebraska amended its law. It now requires that abandoned children be less than 30 days old.
As I said, there is a bad joke here. After all, what is more common than the parental lament of being driven crazy by children? But if you know what these parents have been through, you know there’s nothing funny here. I testify from experience.
When she was a teenager my stepdaughter ó she is 31 now and doing better, thank you ó was a hellion. She was violent, she stole from the house and she was a chronic runaway, shoplifter and liar. Four days after Christmas the year she turned 18, she gave birth after a pregnancy she had kept secret. You can imagine what a lovely surprise this was.
All that to say, I know how desperately a parent will cast about for ways to “fix” an unruly child, how you pray for her, seek therapy for her, use tough love on her, try reasoning with her. I know how helpless a parent feels when none of it works, when a child absolutely refuses to be fixed and you come to realize you have to make a choice between saving her and saving yourself and everyone else in the house, because she is a disruption, a source of stress, a wrecker of peace. Most of all, I know how she makes you question yourself, indict yourself, condemn yourself and feel so utterly, abysmally alone because, surely, no one else in the world has a child like this.
No, not every child abandoned in Nebraska has a behavioral problem. An out-of-work widower dropped off nine kids because, he said, he could no longer care for them. On the other hand, one of the other kids abandoned in Nebraska was an 11-year-old who had threatened to kill his mother and his siblings.
I don’t blame Nebraska for pulling up a drawbridge it never intended to lower. But I submit that what happened in the Cornhusker State is indicative of a desperation we see and hear too little about except as an afternoon talk-show curiosity. But someone other than Maury Povich needs to be paying attention to this. Our legislatures need to. So do our governors and religious leaders. Something is wrong when so many parents are so eager to abandon so many children.
In constructing my recent series of columns on “What Works” to save at-risk kids, I remember being struck by the number of special programs and schools I encountered whose success was owed in part to the fact that they offered counseling to troubled kids. But maybe you shouldn’t have to go through a special program or school to have that service available. Maybe it should be offered on a general basis through all our public schools. And maybe the states should re-evaluate what other services they offer to families with troubled children.
And do so with an urgency.
Because what happened in Nebraska constitutes a message from overstressed parents, one we ignore at our own peril. It is not a complicated message. On the contrary it is as simple and succinct as a word:
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.