James Lehman: Safe Haven Law Points to Desperate Families Who Need Help

Posted November 20, 2008 by

I’ve been saddened by all the reporting that’s been done on the Nebraska Safe Haven Law, which allows parents to abandon children without fear of consequence. The reason I’ve been saddened is because all the news reporting has been focusing on the parents’ irresponsibility and the weird way the law was written and passed. None of it focuses on the real problem, which is the amount of desperation parents feel.

There are many families living in what must feel like little prisons where they’re held hostage by kids for whom they can’t get any effective help. While I understand the discussion in the media about the importance of the state laws and how unclear they are, or how uncaring or caring the parents are, the bottom line is this: there are a lot of desperate people out there and there’s nothing being done to help them. So many families have kids they cannot deal with, and there are no services available for them. (While there is some help for kids out there, a large number of them are beyond the type of help that’s currently available.) For parents, there’s no back-up, there’s no out-of-home support. These people are desperate. Make no mistake, there are many, many desperate families out there with kids who they don’t seem to be able to help, kids who are a harm to themselves and other family members, who are disruptive, and who don’t respond to what’s become the traditional approach to behavior management and treatment.

Unfortunately, changing the Safe Haven law is not going to solve the problem of all those families in need. People don’t know what it feels like to walk into your home and have a 9 or 10 year old screaming, “F— you!” And he won’t go to his room and he won’t stop. And he’s hitting his siblings. He’s stealing from you. People have no idea what that’s like unless they are in that little prison with their child. It’s not like dealing with a naughty child or simple bratty behavior; it’s a whole different level of parenting.

Keep in mind that these kinds of kids don’t let their mothers and fathers parent them. They’re more like custodians and clean-up people. That kid’s relational skills, for whatever reason, are so handicapped that he’s beyond parental control. Often, the training that parents get from their own parents, the media and from other resources does not adequately prepare them to deal with this.

Why is this happening now? I think it’s because the state of families has changed as child-rearing became more about what you feel like doing and wanting to be your child’s friend. As pop psychology became more predominant, child-raising became less important and fewer demands were placed on kids.

All of that contributes to an atmosphere today where parents of very difficult children have absolutely no status or way to get effective help. There are all kinds laws around services for children, but there’s very little effort being made to help parents learn the effective parenting skills they need, or that enables them to get the kind of community support they deserve.

A final word: instead of judging these parents, maybe we need to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes.


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  1. Mrs. Coffer Report

    Thank you for printing your article. I read another one yesterday about how kids in the UK are also getting, shall I say, “ignored,” or aren’t being raised by their parents like they should be. It seems that parents need to take an oath of responsibility now and take parenting classes in college. I also was concerned when I heard that a “17” year old was abandoned because of this strange law. Social Services cannot save every child. A 10 year old was beat to death in California and Social Services had five reports stating that people had called regarding the child previously…though no on had visited the home regarding his care. I bought the Transformation system and I believe it works for me. Thank you so much!

  2. Shirley Report

    Thank you for understanding. There are a lot of judgmental people we come across everyday in dealing with our children who like to point fingers and place blame. Then there are those, like you, who are there to help. I want to encourage parents who are struggling to keep doing all they can and not to give up. This program has many of the answers you are looking for. Having dealt with twins who exibited a miraid of problems, and having two absolutely normal children, I, too, understand. One of my twins passed away at 19, and his surviving twin still struggles with some of his disorders, but at 26 understands so much more of what it takes to be in control of himself.

  3. Sue Report

    WOW! I certainly can relate. I am a single mom, have adopted 3 boys, and have legal guardianship for two more children. My two oldest boys are biological brothers, now ages 17 and 19. Their biological parents were heavily involved in drugs and also suffer from mental illnesses. I’ve had each since their birth.

    My oldest was a charm until about age 4, then he became a very angry child. He was suspsended from school in Kdg. and the school refused to allow him back until he had an evaluation. That began our life of living with evaluations, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc – and he was the easier child.

    His brother was diagnosed with Tourettes Syndrome at about age 4, and later ADHD, and now some evals have him diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, or non-verbal learning disabilities. He was a total terror at school and at home. He was court ordered to the residential facility. Although I love him dearly, there are times I want him gone. He is rude, disrespectful, lies, is extremely manipulative – yet despite these negative behaviours, he can be very loving, sensitive, compassionate, giving, etc.

    Both boys have had continuous counseling, medication, etc – and yet I’m considered to have “poor parenting skills.” Nothing in our community has helped my boys or my immediate family.

    Many of these difficult children are highly intelligent (like my boys) but have neurological disorders that in my case, our school district refused to recognize, nor does it have any good programs.

    I do sympathise with all the families who feel defeated by these children’s behaviours, but I keep reminding myself that God loves them as much as He loves me, and with lots of prayer, faith, and love, there is hope. Without hope, all is lost. I just live one day at a time and cherish the good moments.

  4. anna: waiting for a miracle Report

    I thought that losing my husband 6 years ago was one of the worst things that could ever happened to our family. I never knew that I would have to deal with a child who hurts me and yells at me and degrades me in front of everyone no matter where I am. My child is eight so far they have found that she has panic attacks and is affraid of going places and large crowds and has ODD. I have always been one to pick myself up from trying moments and pull through but I don’t know what to do. She is getting to school now and the counselor but no where else, I and sometimes my other children are getting hit and told to go to H—. Even at the simplest task like brushing teeth or washing her hands I get attacked. I hear you can’t tell me what to do anymore. She calls me the most horrible things. I bought the CD’s but I am to worn out to try anymore I feel there is no hope and we don’t want to live like this anymore. I am being told that someone who has agoraphobia will lash out at others if they don’t want to go places but we aren’t going anywhere this is happening every night sometimes she will be so sweet and then all of a sudden snap. There was one comment that their son is doing well at school and so is she she has one of the hightest IQ’s but is ODD I am learning alot. I have had all of the testing done and have tried all of the programs and rewards programs but nothing works with her. I will try to make the time to listen to the programs sometimes you just feel that you at the point of no return.

    Marie my heart so goes out to you I am so sorry for your pain an your loss I hope that you and your family can find the strength to carry on and what people try to tell me is that this is not my fault she is this way is is within her and she needs to find it within her to want to get better, some of it she can’t control and is on medication but the defiance, once they find away to pull at our strings they feel they have got us and feel in control.

  5. Thankful Report

    Thank you for all of your blogs. I now have more insight into my 4 year olds outbursts. I wish I could tell the lady at the gas station that it is not my fault. I am trying. We are all trying.

  6. Carole Banks, LCSW and Parental Support Line Advisor for The Total Transformation Program Report

    Dear Work in Progress: That’s a great question. For some children, it’s okay to listen to the CD’s, but usually it’s best for you to listen to the material alone as a parent. The program is giving you parenting tips and techniques, but what you don’t want to do is give the program authority over yourself. For example, never say, “The program says you’re supposed to . . . ” to your child. You want to assume control in your household. If you find that your son teases you about using the techniques, you might reply, “Yes, We are listening to some ideas and deciding which ones we are going to use in our family.” I hope this is helpful for you — good luck!

  7. workinprogress Report

    Dear James,
    My mother-in-law just purchased the Total Transformation program and it has been working so far. We are only on cd#4 but I think its going to make all the difference in the world. My son doesn’t have ADD or ADHD or OCD oR any of the other diagnosis the other families have. HE is just really defiant and if he doesnt get his way he throws things at us or curses at my husband and I. So we have to learn how to deal with this effectively instead of yelling back because that has never worked for us. AT least I dont think he has any of those behavior disorders because he is dong well in school and rarely gets in trouble there. We did take him to a counselor once at Kaiser, and he got so mad he tried to break my windshield on my car. Is it Ok to listen to the cd’s in the car with him?

  8. Teresa Report

    Melody — if he wasn’t violent, I would suggest the Job Corps if he is 16. Our daughter WAS violent, but she spent years in programs for troubled teens, and is no longer violent. She still makes bad choices, and we are still doing tough love, but now she is able to function without violence, so the Job Corps took her. It was the first time in the past 8 years that we haven’t had to pay an arm and a leg to get her help. The Job Corps is FREE, and very specifically for at risk youth who have a history of poor behavior. But, they don’t tolerate violence or drugs. Other than that, I wish I could help. We have spent over 100K helping our daughter in the special schools we had to put her in because of her behaviors. It took years of those to get her behavior to the point where the Job Corps could take over. Like I said, we were very fortunate. She almost bankrupted us, but we handled it. Many other families are not so lucky, financially speaking.

  9. melody amundsen Report

    You are absolutely right! So many people do not have a clue that some childrens’ behavior is not due to poor parenting. We have tried numerous things, but to no avail. Our son has ADD & ODD — ODD is so much worse! He has serious anger management problems — I took him to therapists for this issue when he was 10-12. They do no good if the child is not willing to use the anger management skills. In the past 3 years he has either punched or kicked holes in 5 doors in our home; kicked holes in his bedroom wall, etc. He has been told if he does it again, the police will be called for vandalism. He told me last night that one of his classmate’s dad is a policeman and he had asked his classmate what the consequences would be. Ryan told him 6 nights in juvenile and community service. Therefore, he thinks that’s “no big deal”. His outbursts have always been because he doesn’t get his way. We do NOT give in to him and give him his way, yet the behavior continues. I am more than open to any suggestions. Thanks!

  10. marie harper Report


  11. Debra Report

    I am the mom of a 12 year old child diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar and Asperger’s syndrome. We ended up suing our school district(filing a Due Process) after they called the police and did not tell the police about his diagnosises but just “that he had behavioral issues.” We now have him in a small private school which really helps with the rages. My husband and I have dicussed the possibility of residential as he gets older and if the problems become worse with puberty. Even with triple health care coverage, they don’t cover residential placement. One program was 109,000 a year. I feel for parents who don’t feel safe in their own homes and can’t deal with these children.Outsiders look at you like YOU have done something wrong when in reality you are doing everything possible to try to make things better. My child is on medication, sees a psychiatrist monthly, sees a psychologist weekly and attends a very small private school geared for Austism spectrum disorder kids. I have even told a CPS worker that if she thought that she could do a better job then to go ahead and take my child with her.

  12. relievedMom Report

    I am the mom of one of these children. I have found programs like James Lehman’s to be VERY HELPFUL, but there is one other ingredient that changed our lives from desperate, unsafe, wanting to send him away… there is a medication that turned night to day, and it was prescribed by his pediatrician! It is TRILEPTAL (the generic is called Oxcarbazipine). My son went from pulling knives on me (at age 8) and throwing barbells through the door to a child who crosses his arms and humfs when he is upset…what a DIFFERENCE! He has been on this medication now for 3+ years. We believe it is a gift of God. Before this medication, we feared for the safety of our younger daughter. My son also has ADHD, and takes Vyvanse for that. The rages are gone, and we have discovered if he misses a dose, about a week later he has a small episode of rage, but we know it is coming and we help him work through it (mostly by leaving him alone and not exasperating the anger). Hope this helps!

  13. Bonny Report

    Hi James,

    Thanks so much for your wonderful products and for this blog.

    20/20 did a news story on Friday 11/21 about the desperation that people feel that caused them to drop off their children in Nebraska. It wasn’t a completely effective news piece, but at least the TV show did try to describe the “other side of the story”.

    Here’s a link :

    (Need to go to the bottom.)

    Thanks again… With the help from your products, counselors, medication, and faith, I survived my son’s horrific behavior from ages 5 thru 11. He is a now a “normal” teenager (almost 14).

  14. Proudgrandpa Report

    Wow, I feel overwhelmed for these parents and their children.

    As a grandparent I must admit that I have judged some parenting skills but I also know folks that are dealing with situation of desperation like those in this blog. I am not so sure about the effectiveness of the Safe Haven law but I do applaud any effort to help these desperate families that only want to help their kids to grow to be lovable and loving. I have yet to meet the parents that wake up in the morning look at each other and say “How can we effectively screww our kids up today?”

    James, I thank you for raising this issue. I am an optomistic kind of guy but I do feel that parents are caught in a downward spiral of contradictions of responsibility (readily accepted) and the lack of tools and support from the community in general and the governmental system specifically. I have been blessed with two wonderful children, now grown, but I will plainly admit that I made many mistakes that today would be judged as very poor parenting.

    At 64 I doubt that I will be faced with the same dalemas as some of these parents but I do plan to look for opportunities to support my kids and other parents from the perpesctive of an old guy with a non-judgemental, compassionate heart and a willingness to help where I can.

    Thanks to all who care for our children. Those of you that are struggling with challenging kids please know that you are doing a noble and worthwhile work and I applaud your loving efforts without judgement and with great admiration.


  15. Lynn Report

    I cried at work when I read his article….it is my husband’s and my life – rather my family’s life. I call it hell. We have been to 3 family theapists who are not helpful and have no one to refer us to. I asked his medical doctor, who is a specialist on ADHD/ODD to refer us to someone to help him and she says she doesn’t think kids at his age can be helped (they’re not open to it). I tell them we are a famlily in crisis to no avail. We PRAY that neighbors will call the cops on us and come take him away!!! The cops actually did come last week because a concerned person in another vehicle reported my husband’s license plate with issues of abuse going on in the car. The cops told us the person reported OUR SON as the abuser!!! Our son was beating up my husband from behind as he was driving…my son also kept opening the car door as the car was moving. Bottom line – the cops didn’t take him away…nothing changed.

    Our son is 9 1/2 and is diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He has been “high maintenance” since day 1. He is on medications for both (since 5 yrs. old) – they are in rotation mode when they become ineffective. And, effective doesn’t mean that life is ever good….it isn’t.

    We are worried for our family – us as a married couple, our daughter; and, we are greatly concerned for his life as well….what quality of parenting are we providing to him when we are constantly dealing with the the ADHD/ODD? What memories will he have? How are WE “scarring” or wreaking his life? HOW can he have happy memories?? I love him but I really hate him, too. Very, very sad thing to say.

  16. Sherilyn Report

    Thank you! Finally, someone saying these kids don’t want to be parented. Parents need help in raising their children that are out of control. They are at their wits end by the time they realize they are in serious trouble and really need some help, but where do you go to get it? We need help. Who protects us?

  17. fairiefire Report

    The law was changed last week. This weekend, we were looking into it ourselves. Its a drastic last-step, but so many kids are being so wild nowadays. It could be this was always the way, but more relatives were able to take kids in or more kids were turned out on their own at earlier ages. I wonder that this “epidemic” is seemingly so new.

  18. Teresa Report

    My husband and I have been at the point where we considered disrupting our adoption — we adopted our 19 year old daughter from Russia when she was 12. She was seriously messed up by her birth parents, by their alcoholism, serious abuse, neglect, and then years of institutionalization in a Russian orphanage. And we were first time parents and point blank clueless about the realities of parenting a child like her.

    And James Lehman is right. We felt like we were in a prison. My husband put it this way: Most parents get drafted into parenthood — kind of like getting drafted to go to Viet Nam. It was never easy, but you could have a decent experience, or you could have a bad one, and there was always a chance you could serve in a non-combat zone. When we adopted our 19 year old, it was like not only volunteering for Viet Nam, but like signing up to go into the special forces deep in enemy territory in the middle of a mine field, with a sign on our heads that said “go ahead, shoot us, we’re the enemy”.

    She continually made decisions that put her life and the safety of our family at risk. She was so violent and unwilling to allow us to maintain a safe environment at home for her AND for us, that we finally placed her in a program for troubled girls when she was 15. The last straw back then was when she snuck out of the house to meet a 29 year old pedophile. We told her that, by God, until she was 18, if she would not keep herself safe, then we would ensure she was in an environment where she didn’t have an option about it. She stayed and graduated from the program when she was 18. And the special schooling cost our family over 100K.

    And then she turned right around after coming home, and 6 months later started back up with the dangerous behaviors that she had when she was 15 that caused us to put her in the safe place. This time, the boyfriend was a guy that had been convicted of DUIs and Drug possession, but he also was convicted of felony child endangerment, and my husband and I had a brand new baby girl (20 years of infertility, and go figure, we got pregnant without even trying). This time, our oldest was 19, and claimed that she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, however she wanted, with whomever she wanted, because she was an adult. Our answer to her was “You are absolutely right — you can do exactly that. BUT, we don’t have to see it, condone it, finance it, support it, let you live with us, or let you put the rest of our family in danger. If you want to make decisions that put YOU at risk, knock yourself out. But until you stop making decisions that put our family at risk, you don’t get to have a relationship with us”. And we kicked her out of the house that very day — no more chances.

    3 weeks later, she got arrested for trespassing and she was high on drugs at the time. She called us, begging for our help, telling us she had nowhere to go. But we were determined to see the tough love through. We KNEW that if we “helped” her, we would actually be hurting her in the long run. So we told her that she did the crime and had to do the time. And we told her that her options when she got out of jail were either join the Job Corps, or we would drive her to the nearest homeless shelter, but that she could not come home. She promised she would straighten out. But we have heard that promise from her a zillion times before. She has completely burned that bridge. And this time, we couldn’t put her in a boarding school for troubled kids.

    So tough love it was. She chose the Job Corps. I didn’t think she would last 2 months. But, surprise, surprise, she has been there 6 months already. And she is doing well there, according to her counselor. She is working on rebuilding the bridges that she burned with our family, and she is apparently cleaning up her act — although she is still making stupid decisions when it comes to boys (that being said, I know fully adult women with 5 children who still keep making the same mistake when it comes to their relationships).

    I guess the point I am making is that if anyone gets how desperate the parents of an oppositional, defiant, violent child feel, it’s me. But not all parents have the financial luxury of placing their troubled children in a boarding school for troubled kids. The rat trap programs run upwards of $1500 a month, and some of those programs run upwards of 5K a month. That can break a family financially very quickly. A lot of families don’t have that option. So the law in Nebraska that allows parents to relinquish their kids in a safe place doesn’t seem so nuts to me anymore.

    And then of course, is the nightmare of CPS, or DFPS, or whatever the child protective services system is called in each state. If there were truly a system that helped families in need — that isn’t it. My husband and I were in the middle of trying to adopt 3 kids from foster care when we got pregnant with our now 15 month old. They didn’t find out I was pregnant until I was 7 months along, because I was so scared that they would take the kids. We loved them. And go figure, we were volunteering for Viet Nam again…

    To make a long story short, the adoption didn’t work out, mostly due to the system, not the kids. But in dealing with the foster care system, we learned that there are so many rules that the system has that are so unreasonable that you can’t parent your child effectively within the system rules, especially not a RAD/ODD/ADHD/any other special needs child. We were not allowed to put our 4 year old foster son in time out. We were not allowed to make the 6 year old write sentences (as in “I will not crack my brother’s head against the wall). In short, we were not allowed to give reasonable, non-abusive, constructive consequences to teach discipline and self control to the very children we wanted to adopt, but they also wouldn’t give us any useful options we COULD use.

    So again, that law now seems reasonable to me — albeit needing changes. Any parent’s nightmare is being investigated by CPS. We were investigated twice, and though we were cleared, the stress was enough to make us want to quit being foster parents. What that law says to me is, if you are at the end of your rope, you can leave your kids in these safe places, and there will be some kind of program for you as a parent to help you work out your problems – whether it involves termination of parental rights or not. I would rather they have this law and have an option for kids to be left in a safe place than its alternative, which can lead to nightmare situations. Is it a perfect law? No. Does it need a lot of work? Absolutely. But is it a statement of how very difficult it has become to be an effective parent in today’s society? You bet.

  19. Lisa Report

    Thank you, thank you, thank you James for validating the reality for some parents!!! I am one of these. I am a single mom and totally without family and community support for the most part. Most blame me for my now 10 year old’s behavior. Even worse, they often treat me like a simpleton who has been living under a parenting rock and have never heard of “parenting gems” like discipline, time outs, structure, accountability, stop being their friend, etc. They are clueless to the reality we live everyday. Thank you so much for the rally to support instead of blame!

    Most who get close enough to see their “effective” suggestions get innialated by my son turn tail and run far, far away, never to return. Most avoid any contact with us as any validation that we even exist as we do is too much for them to fathom. They block it out as it is too much for them to address.

    Thank God for your programs and these newsletters! It keeps me sane and is the only place I’ve ever felt acknowledged and gotten useful advice. So many people just really don’t know what we go through, but you do and that is the knot at the end of the rope we hold on to. Thank you!!

  20. Annita Report

    Last week in Wisconsin, the father of a 12 year old with similar disorders to the ones posted by parents on this blog, took his son’s life and then his own. It has sparked a lot of discussion about the enormous challenges parents face, often without enough community and family support or respite. Added to the situation, are the current financial stresses familiies are feeling due to the economy, medical bills, foreclosures, etc. Safe Haven Law, while not functioning as it was planned, has opened the door to the rest of the world about the reality some families live in each day. I can only imagine the relief those desperate parents felt when they knew they had someplace to turn,(Safe Haven Law) where they knew they had to leave their children, so they would be in safer hands than their own.

  21. Michele Report

    My son is 8 1/2 now. It has been a long road. My husband and I are “one of those” parents. We didn’t understand why our toddler would belt me in the face if I told him not to run in front of the car wash exit. He has punched, bit, hit, kicked and cursed his way to this age. Although he is diagnosed with Asberger’s and ODD or explosive disorder, having this diagnoses doesn’t help after the day is done. How do we help this child and help ourselves is an endless refrain in our home. I sympatize with all of the parents who don’t know where to turn when their child turns their house upsidedown day after day.

  22. Christina Report

    This message really stuck with me. This summer was very difficult for our family. I was scared for my own safety in my own house. Scared to round a corner. Scared to open a closed door that he was behind. In talking with his psychiatrist about things, he likened our experience to being terrorized and being run down by a tyrant. And my son is only four.

    I cannot imagine what this situation would be like for a parent of an older child, though I have tried. I know that if we are not able to straighten out our situation, things will continue on their path.

    We looked into a residential program for my very young boy late in the summer because we were not sure about our safety at home with him.

    Thankfully, due to getting a lot of medicine in order and putting in place the Total Transformation Program, things are going a million times better now. I hope they continue to improve.



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