I take it back. There is something in the news that I've been meaning to blog about, but I didn't think of it earlier. As most of you have probably heard, Nebraska has run into some unexpected problems with its safe haven law. The law was originally designed to allow parents to drop off children at the state's hospitals, thereby essentially making the children wards of the state, in cases where parents thought they were unable or unwilling to care for the child. The law was designed to prevent the abandonment of children, but was primarily meant to protect babies and infants (the law is menat to encourage people to bring unwanted children to a hospital as opposed to abandoning them in places where the children might become sick or injured before eing found). The law was written without an age limit, however, and much to the chagrin of Nebraska state officials, a fairly large number of teenagers and older children, many of whom have emotional and mental disabilities (about 27 of 30 right now), have been dropped off in state custody since the law went into effect.
I saw CNN's Campbell Brown on TV last night just shaking her head in disbelief and scolding the parents of these older children who have been dropped off in state custody.
Here's the thing. I've been working on this mental health docket for a couple of years now, and I pretty much believe that most people with normal, healthy children aren't in much of a position to judge the actions of parents who have children with severe mental health disabilities. These are parents who typically love their kids, but deal with things like constant emotional outbursts (think of the temper tantrums of a two year old- now imagine those taking place in a 15 or 16 year old's body), bizarre, often destructive behavior, physical violence, threats, the tendency to wander off or run away from home at a moment's notice, and the simple, constant, ongoing frustration of dealing with adolescent kids who often aren't able to take care of normal, day to day things like feeding, clothing, and maintaining some semblance of personal hygiene. Kids with mental health disabilties may be low functioning, have wild mood swings, experience regular internal voices and auditory hallucinations, or suffer from a variety of other symptoms. Medications, regular doctor visits, and therapy can go a long way toward fixing some of these problems, but sometimes the symptoms don't clear up, and oftentimes the patients don't like staying on the meds because they don't like the side effects and the way that the drugs make them feel. Patients frequently resist sticking with their medication regimens because they don't like the feel of their medications or because they want to try to deal with their symptoms themselves (many patients don't like the stigma of mental illness, which leads to resistance to treatment). And the parents of these kids suffer the agony of knowing that, for the most part, these kids aren't going to grow out of these symptoms or the diseases that cause them. Most of these kids will be struggling with these problems for most of their life, and there really isn't an end in sight for most of these parents in terms of some end date when they can expect to be able to turn these kids loose and let them have a life of their own. Many mental health patients are unable to hold a job or to function in normal society, and given the absence of mental health hospitals or places that can provide long term treatment for these people, many of them end up living with their parents long into adulthood.
Anyway, Campbell Brown was on TV chastising these parents, telling the story of these kids who were dropped off at Nebraska hospitals, and wondering aloud about what kind of person could give up their child in such a situation. The answer is- parents that are just absolutely out of options, out of hope, and unable to deal with the situation any longer. If I had to guess, I'd be willing to bet money that these parents don't really want to give up their kids- it's just that they truly can't handle their kids or the situations that they find themselves in, and they've finally just come to the awful conclusion that their kids would be better off living with just about anyone but them.
There may be a few truly bad people amongst the group that abandoned their kids in Nebraska, but on the whole, I think that the rush to abandon these kids just shines a spotlight on a big, awful problem in our society. Lots of parents are out there dealing with severely ill children, and they're barely getting by. We need more social workers, many more and much better psychiatric hospitals (more of which need to be geared toward long term care, as opposed to the short term "medicate and release" facilities which constitute most of the health care facilities in our country today), and just a whole lot more understanding, care, and support for families that are dealing with a mentally ill or emotionally disturbed child. Society can't just shake its collective head at these "awful parents" who are abandoning their kids. These parents literally don't know what to do anymore and can't handle the pressure of being income earners, parents, healthcare providers, and babysitters. These parents are at the end of their rope- they've come to the conclusion that the only way to make society sit up and stop ignoring them is to make the entire issue the state's problem by putting their children in the state's care, and although I would guess that this is a very hard decision for most of these parents to make, I would bet that most of them wouldn't be pursuing this course of action unless they truly felt that they had no other choice.
That's it. That's the end of my rant. I've just dealt with too many of these crying, frustrated, suffering parents- worn out, exhausted, well-intentioned people who have been dealing with these problems for years and years- to sit in judgment of them without hearing each and every one of their individual stories. It's a shame that our immediate response to the issue of abandoning older, mentally ill kids is to just close the loophole so that parents can't get away with it. Instead, we ought to be taking a look at why parents are feeling the need to do this in the first place, and work at addressing some of the problems that drive parents to this decision.