How to dump your kids Nebraska style
Sick of arguments and teenage bad behaviour? In the United States, some parents have woken up to the fact that, thanks to a loophole in one state's law, they can legally abandon their children there. Leonard Doyle reports
Gary Staton's face was knotted with anxiety. An Omaha TV station was quizzing the young Nebraska widower about why he decided to walk into a hospital with nine of his 10 children and abandon them there. "We raised them together," he said. "I didn't think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn't take care of them."
Mr Staton, 34, left the children, aged one to 17, at a hospital, telling staff that their mother, his wife, had died and he could not handle raising them alone. A quirk in a new Nebraska law makes it possible to abandon a child without fear of prosecution.
"I was able to get the kids to a safe place before they were homeless," he told KETV Omaha. "I hope they know I love them. I hope their future is better without me around them."
Mr Staton is not alone. The economic turmoil in the country means that many more American families are falling into a sinkhole of debt, despair and hopelessness.
In Nebraska some parents have rushed to abandon teenage children to the mercy of the state. Two of those were driven in from out of state, from Iowa and Michigan.
Over the last two months 18 children have been abandoned. The latest was driven for 12 hours from the gritty city of Detroit, across four state lines before arriving at an Omaha hospital on Monday. His mother dropped him off in the early hours and then disappeared back home.
The spate of abandonments began on 1 September when a mother quietly dropped off her 14-year-old son at a police station in Omaha. Three weeks later another two boys and a girl, aged 11 to 14, had been left in the care of hospitals in Lincoln and Omaha. Then came a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. There followed a procession of custodial grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, fathers and mothers. In the past month they dropped off 15 older children they said were beyond their control.
This was not the outcome child welfare lobbyists expected when they persuaded the state to pass its so-called "Dumpster baby law" to protect newborns. Now Nebraskans are up in arms about the law and complaining that feckless parents across the country are rushing to take advantage of taxpayers' generosity.
A raging controversy about irresponsible parenting has been whipped up in the state. And there is much hand-wringing by officials as they hurry to close the loophole in the law to protect abandoned newborns – before more out-of-control teenagers are dumped on the state's hands.
Nebraska's mini-epidemic of abandoning children may soon be over, but it has cast a harsh light on the underbelly of troubled times across the US. Amid lost jobs and foreclosed homes, countless families find themselves without a safety net. Out of work, many cannot afford or access counselling or psychiatric services when they or their children most need it.
The Detroit woman who ditched her apparently wayward teenager on Monday does not appear to have any ties to the state. The boy is now in an emergency shelter in Omaha. There is nothing to suggest that he was in danger before being abandoned.
Nebraska's so-called "safe haven" law, which went into effect in July, allows parents or care givers to drop off children at a hospital and wave a tearful goodbye. But instead of being used to prevent the abandonment of newborns by frightened unwed mothers, parents with out-of-control teenagers have taken advantage of it.
The law was designed to enable mothers drop off newborns they cannot care for without fear of being prosecuted. Across the US more than 2,000 babies have been handed to hospitals since Texas enacted the first such law in 1999. But Nebraska offered to protect children up to age 19.
The law's sponsor, state senator Arnie Stuthman, said the intent was to protect all children from falling through the cracks. But why Gary Staton gave up all his children except his 18-year-old daughter remains a mystery. His wife died in February 2007 after the delivery of their 10th child. The family was living in a small wooden house with the roof falling in and a blanket over a broken window. Welfare officials found the home was filthy, without gas or water and took away the children for nine months.
Stunned relatives offered last week to take in the children, and officials expect to send them to two family homes as soon as background checks were complete. Nobody knows why Mr Staton did not ask for help.
"I empathise with families across our state and across the country who are struggling with parenting issues," said Todd Landry, who runs the state's child services. "But this is not the appropriate way of dealing with them, in Nebraska or another state."
Harsh economic times have led to steep reductions by local authorities where tax revenues have dried up. Welfare services have been cut to the bone and care, counselling and psychiatric services are unavailable to troubled families. Mark Courtney, an expert on child welfare, told The New York Times: "There's a huge void in services for distressed families."
The minimal health insurance afforded by many middle-class families covers scant psychiatric services. Many cannot afford regular or residential programmes for troubled children. Only the poorest Americans can claim Medicaid and many therapists do not accept the rates paid by the welfare system.
"In Nebraska, as in a lot of states, we don't have funding to provide a strong mental health system for kids," admitted Judy Kay, from an organisation which helps families in crisis. "But we do have resources that many parents are not using."