In the past few years, many states have passed legislation allowing parents of newborns to drop their infants off at a designated safe place, no questions asked. These laws are intended to prevent the tragedy of unwanted newborns that have been literally left to die in dumpsters, public toilets, and similar places, usually by panicked teenage parents. Nebraska is the most recent state to pass such a law, but whether by negligence or design, the Nebraska statute did not specify a maximum age of a child who could be left at a safe place without legal repercussions to the parents. In a turn of events that would be comical if it weren’t so sad, Nebraska has seen a parade of 17 different children dropped off at designated hospitals: none of them have been infants, and most have been adolescents. Since Nebraska’s legislature is part-time and does not resume session until January, there may be more drop-offs before the law can be amended.
What’s going on here, and what can we learn from it?
The most obvious lesson is the old drafting lesson: when drafting legislation, watch out for unintended consequences. If a law is intended to protect infants, then it should include qualifying language limiting its reach to infants. Nebraska legislators are no doubt embarrassed by this oversight.
The second lesson is harder to swallow, however. There is obviously a large unmet need in society if parents and guardians feel so desperate and overwhelmed that they try to sever all ties with their children. All states have child-related services, and there are opportunities to sever parental rights in circumstances where this is necessary to protect children. Termination of parental rights is not intended to relieve frustrated parents of their financial and emotional responsibilities, however. What can parents do when they are faced with recalcitrant teens who do not respond to the parenting techniques or therapies available to them? It is fine to say that parents should not run away from their responsibilities, but what if they truly can’t cope? Rebellious teens may run away from home, but studies have shown that a significant percentage of runaways are actually “throwaways,” meaning that their parents have told them to leave. Kids who find themselves out on the street are more likely to be victims of crime, and are more likely to be involved with drugs or prostitution. (See e.g. www.runawayteen.org/statistics.) The Nebraska legislative fiasco suggests that parents of troubled teens need better and more accessible support.
The third lesson is that citizens may invoke laws to achieve results that the laws neither intend nor are particularly well-suited to provide. In the latest act of the Nebraska drama, the Iowa grandparents who deposited their granddaughter at the Nebraska hospital yesterday have reclaimed her, stating that they just wanted to teach her a lesson. This sort of thing happens in family law all the time, from the spouse who files for divorce hoping to shock the other spouse into getting marital counseling, to the disgruntled heir who contests a will as much to prove that he was loved by the testator as to get an inheritance. So today I again find myself mulling over the question about whether it is legitimate to expect law to fulfill a therapeutic role for citizens such as the parents in Nebraska. I don’t have an answer for the distraught Nebraska parents, and neither, it seems, does the Nebraska legislature.