Migration — Child Left Behind

October 2, 2008

“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.”

— Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion wrote her essay more than 40 years ago. It’s even more true now, but the adolescents don’t just drift from city to city these days. Now parents in Nebraska can relinquish any child under age 19 at a hospital.

The stories behind the Safe Haven law are sad, both for the children and for the parents who lack the resources to go on caring for their children. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, an unemployed father of nine whose wife had died said, “I didn’t think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn’t take care of them.” He obviously felt he had no support network – close family, friends or neighbors whom he could call on.

The director of the state’s child welfare agency urged parents or guardians to examine other options first. This angle may work in theory, but it seems unlikely that parents in such despair or anger will be thinking clearly enough to sit with a pro/con list or pick up the phone and begin dialing for relatives.

Mental health professionals worry about the long term effects on children, big and small. The children abandoned as infants will later say, “My parents weren’t able to care for me,” a family advocate told a Nebraska radio station. But if the child is a teen, the organization president said, the reaction is, what did I do wrong?

The syndrome of “if only I had behaved better” isn’t limited to children abandoned under Safe Haven laws. Children placed in foster care for whatever reason have the same reaction. They almost always blame themselves for their parents’ failures, as do the children of divorcing parents unless the parents handle the situation well.

From the parents’ point of view, even the most angelic children can drive mom and dad to wishing the kid would take himself off some place. And especially parents of children with special needs must suffer anguish when they are forced to institutionalize their children. See Hurry Down Sunshine, Michael Greenberg’s account of his daughter’s decent into madness at age fifteen.

But those moments go away in all but the most grievous situations. When parents exercise their rights under the Safe Haven law, they are declaring that they are, at least temporarily, unfit parents, and that their children will be better off living elsewhere. Redemption is available, though, as parents can reclaim the children. It makes Safe Haven the legal equivalent of an extended timeout. But how does one guarantee that the children won’t be worse off afterward – as they live with the knowledge that their parents could send them away again? And what are we to make of the 18 year old who dropped himself off, looking for safe haven?

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