Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Laws and Unintended Consequences

Time has an interesting look at the sad situation in Nebraska ever since that state's too-ambiguous child abandonment law was passed:
And not just one or two. Nebraska found itself facing an epidemic of abandoned children after the legislature passed a law in July that allowed parents to leave their children at a safe place, like a hospital, without fear of prosecution. It was one of the last states in the country to pass such legislation — but the law contained a large loophole by including children of all ages. The legislature gathered on Friday in a special session to fix the safe-haven law. The day before, three more kids were abandoned at Omaha hospitals, bringing the total to 34 since mid-September, shortly after the law was passed. A 5-year-old boy was left by his mother on Thursday night; two teenage girls, 14 and 17, were dropped off earlier the same day. The older girl ran away from the ER before authorities could arrive. And a Florida man traveled from Miami to drop off his 11-year-old boy earlier this week.

But while Nebraska can easily narrow its statute, dealing with the underlying causes of abandonment is much harder, child-welfare experts say. "These parents had to be totally overwhelmed to do something like this," says the Rev. Steven Boes, president of Boys Town — the original safe haven of Father Flanagan fame, which happens to be headquartered in Omaha. Once upon a time, Depression-battered parents would buy bus fare for their children and hand them a sign that read "Take Me to Boys Town." Their counterparts today "are parents who have tried to navigate the system for years, and this is their last resort; these are parents who ran out of patience too darn fast and gave up too early, and everything in between," says Boes. [...]

Five of the children abandoned in Nebraska have been from out of state, but most are local. A majority of the children are older than 13 and have a history of being treated for mental-health issues. Nearly every abandoned child came from a single-parent household. In September, one father walked into a hospital and left nine children, ages 1 to 17. He reportedly told hospital workers that he'd been overwhelmed since his wife died a few days after their youngest was born. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
First of all, this is truly tragic and heartbreaking. I can't imagine the pain on both sides, the parents whose children are in serious need of mental help, and the children who must come to terms with the reality that a parent has left them in the care of strangers. The article mentions that many of these kids have been in and out of foster care, as well; these are in some cases parents who have already lost custody to the state before, and are prepared to surrender custody voluntarily again.

But I get the feeling that once again we are, by and large, ignoring the wreckage left behind by the sexual revolution. Aside from the one father who left his nine children, under circumstances of grief and stress and without, apparently, any family or community support in the face of his wife's tragic death, most of these children are coming from situations where the parent was divorced, or perhaps never married in the first place--and as Matthew Archbold's excellent report today illustrates, these are the families most in crisis in our nation.

Our weakened view of marriage, our notion that adult happiness is the reason to tie the knot, our view that children are nice if you want one or two, our expectation that marriage will only last so long as the two people involved in it are blissfully happy with each other--all of these things are what I generally mean when I use the phrase "sex without consequences." Some have disliked the phrase, but when I say that ordinarily children are the consequence of human physical reproductive activity I'm not using the word "consequences" in a pejorative sense, but only a natural one. It is natural for a man and a woman to choose each other, to choose to be together--but it is equally and overwhelmingly natural for them to do so with the thought that they will be having children together, in God's time and by His will. No person who has ever suffered the pain of infertility would deny that children are both the consequence and the great blessing of marriage, and that their own inability to share in this joyful consequence for which they ardently hoped and wished is a heavy and burdensome Cross which they are asked to carry.

But people who enter into reproductive activity with each other, married or not, but who seek the activity without its most natural and expected consequence and have taken immoral action to prevent, as they think, this consequence from occurring, are the people who expect to be able to deny the arrival of a child, and are often the least prepared to accept the blessing of children. Moreover, married couples who damage their marriage by resorting to artificial contraception and the fundamental rejection of each other and this great blessing which that contraception implies often find themselves raising children they "planned" to have alone, as their spouse deserts them for someone younger, more interesting, or less demanding, and plans to satisfy his or her obligations to parenthood by the mere writing of a check--and these plans have a way of disappearing.

The reality, as that grief-stricken father of nine would probably say himself, is that it takes two parents to raise children. Not just any two parents, either: a mother and a father. And they should both, preferably, be the parents of the children, not one father and one stepmother, or vice-versa. None of this is to say that people who find themselves raising someone else's children through tragic circumstances or because of the failure of the biological parents are in any way less admirable than biological parents; in many instances they are more admirable, because they take on the roles and duties of parents without that biological tie, and do so completely voluntarily. But I think that even the most dedicated of adoptive parents would agree that in a perfect world, children would never be harmed or abandoned or neglected by the very people who ought most to protect them, and that a culture which encourages sexual activity among the unmarried and contraceptive use among everyone is going to be a culture in which the tragedies of abuse and neglect and abandonment occur. So long as children are thought of, not as the natural result of a happy marriage, but an accessory which one may choose to have if one wishes, we're going to perpetuate this situation.

Nebraska's law will be changed, and soon. But the thirty-four children dropped off at hospitals in Nebraska since September are only a symptom of a problem, one that is only going to get worse, especially in a post-gay marriage world where the notion that having a baby has anything at all to do with getting married will be proof of one's heterosexist bigotry, not of one's desire for stable marriages and strong families. Nebraska's law had a lot of unintended consequenses, and it was by no means as broad and sweeping a law as the ones designed to redefine, dismantle, and ultimately destroy marriage as a civil concept altogether.


LeeAnn said...

It makes you wonder why we ever did away with orphanages in this country. The family of 9 children excepted, I'm not sure changing this law to apply only to infants under 30 days old is necessarily in the best interests of children.

Daddio said...

I agree with leeann. There's a balance, I think, between encouraging and strengthening families, and also making it possible for parents who admit their incapacity to allow their children to be rescued rather than continually subject to abuse.

This of course has got me thinking and I will post something on our blog later on.

eulogos said...

I can't help thinking that the father of 9 could be reunited with his children if assisted with some services which are available in many states; housekeeping services, day care.(Better to be in day care and come home to one's own father, than to be in foster care.). I hope something like that can be worked out.

I had two boys 17 months apart, my 7th and 8th children, who were very very difficult. There were several years during which I longed for some kind of help with them as I felt totally inadequate, and my husband was emotionally not up to dealing with them. One of them eventually spent some time in a group home, which he bitterly resented but which actually did help him. He is a junior in college now,doing well, although there is still some friction if he is home for more than a day or two- and the other one has graduated from college, is married, and is very serious about being an Orthodox Christian. The outcome is better than I ever could have hoped at some points with these two. I feel sympathy for these overstressed parents, and I hope the approach to them to to help them out rather than to condemn them.
Susan Peterson

CrimsonCatholic said...

Since I had raised an objection to the "sex without consequences" language, I wanted to clarify that I have no objection to the use of "consequences" in the natural sense. In that sense, when what naturally follows as a consequence from something else is absent, then there is (also naturally) a deficient or distorted understanding of the thing. I only prefer to focus on the irrationality aspect to avoid having to make the explanation that you did in this case, which is to say that you mean "consequence" in a rather more technical sense than most people have in mind.