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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