Nebraska is the only place in the United States with an open “safe haven” law that allows parents to abandon their children at an approved hospital without fear of legal reprisal, regardless of their age or the situation; the only qualifier is that childrens services and other organizations can confirm the children have not been abused.
This safe haven law is causing a great deal of outcry in both public and social research circles, however, as an increasing number of parents are bringing their teenage children, some of whom are over the age of 15 or 16 and leaving them to be taken care of by the state. Furthermore, some parents are bringing not just one child who is causing a problem or is otherwise undesired and in one striking case in September 2008, “three fathers walked into two hospitals in Omaha and abandoned their children. One left nine siblings, ages 1 to 17” (Koch 2008). Officials indicated in the USA Today article that upon some investigation through interviews with the children, the parents left their children due to “behavioral problems, not family financial woes, which were a factor in earlier cases” (Koch 2008) and was the main purpose behind the safe haven legislation. Another issue that is emerging as highly problematic for hospital administrators and children’s social workers is the fact that as news is spreading about the Nebraska law, parents from out of state, as far away as Georgia and Michigan, are driving several hours to drop their child off at one of the state’s licensed safe haven locations. The Associated Press reported in The New York Times in October that “a Michigan mother drove roughly 12 hours to Omaha so she could abandon her 13-year-old son at a hospital…the second teenager from outside of Nebraska” (2008).
A radio broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered takes a greater human interest approach to the story through its interviews with the triage nurses and social workers assigned to taking on cases from the safe haven law. One case worker who handled some of the cases of older children’s abandonment stated, “Some of the children know what’s going on. You know, maybe the parent or guardian told them on the way to the hospital. Some of the children don’t know what’s going on, so we’ve had such an extreme of emotions and some are crying, they’re begging the parent or guardian not to leave” (Block 2008). Through this radio interview, listeners can clearly detect a strain to the social workers voice, she concludes by suggesting, almost resignedly, “we make sure they have a blanket…something to eat…but we don’t promise them anything that we can’t promose, so we don’t give too much information until we know the facts.” This and other case workers interviewed in stories from these hospitals feel that most of the time, behavioral problems are the main factor. What these stories related to the safe haven law present is a problem that has a direct effect on hospitals, social workers, families, and potential foster care providers and furthermore, creates a woefully painful situation for the abandoned children, especially if they are not sure why they have been left or beg their parent not to go.
What is significant about this news story in the context of social work and society more generally, is that it is incredibly complicated. Analyzing and addressing the important factors of such a story involves taking into account the perspectives of nearly all who are involved, including the parents, the abandoned children, the social and hospital workers, as well as the policy makers and taxpayers who are shouldering the burden of this law and its financial and social implications. For the purposes of this examination of the practical application of a theoretical framework to guide a response if it were ever encountered, it is necessary to put a few qualifiers for the purposes of a more specific discussion. Firstly, this analysis will examine the problem from the perspective of the child in question and assumes the child is old enough to understand (whether they wished it or not) they have been abandoned. Secondly, for the purposes of being more specific, it will be assumed that the response in theoretical context will be at the hospital and not days following the event. As stated by the news sources, these cases require immediate assignment of a social worker. With these contextual delineations in place, the two most applicable theories to guide a response and process of understanding are life span theories with their emphasis on growth and development throughout the life span as well as cognitive and moral development theories. Both of these theories are particularly well-suited to social work when children and teenagers are involved as they both emphasize the fact that development of the person is still taking place. Between the two of these theories, with their inter-related but independently operating functions, a more focused approach can be taken to help children understand what has happened and to provide immediate guidance not only for the following few days, but for the remainder of their lives. While this might not be a situation every social worker will face due to the specific nature of the law Nebraska, encountering issues of abandoned and unwanted children is an unfortunate situation a child-centered social worker will likely face at some point and while this is a severe case, it provides context in a worst case scenario.
Life span theories are particularly useful to understanding this situation and provide valuable guidance for a social worker in addressing a situation that is cataclysmic, if not potentially catastrophic to child or teenager’s perception of his or her world. According to theories related to growth and development through the life span, there are important interrelated forces at work during the process of one’s development, many of which are external and beyond one’s control (social and biological forces, for example). However, despite some of these rigid forces that cannot be changed, this theory stresses the concept of the journey through life and development and, as suggested, “all people are on a life journey and social workers can provide care and assistance to people on this journey, provide them with help when they are down, and encourage them along the way” (Chapter 13). In the case presented, the subjects will require this kind of encouragement from an adult and furthermore, if this theory can be used to help one understand how this is a challenge that can lead to greater personal development throughout the course of one’s life, it can be beneficial and aid in the healing process. On a personal note, this theory helps reconcile what is an unimaginably sad situation with the possibility of hope that these abandoned children, with proper guidance, can actually reconcile what has happened in their own lives and gather strength from this challenge, rather than be mire forever in the pain of it.