Friday, November 28, 2008

All Children Need Safe Havens

By now we've all probably heard the sad story of parents from across the country who've taken advantage of the state of Nebraska's Safe Haven law.

It is a law designed for birth parents, most often young, single women, unprepared for and unwilling to assume the rigors of caring for their infants or newborns. Its a good strategy. The parent are able to take the child to a Nebraska hospital and with no questions asked, leave the child there with medical staff who would turn the infant over to child protective services. Fewer children run the risk of criminal abandonment, abuse and neglect. The problem is Nebraska specified no age limit in the legislation!

Who knew that people from other states would bring children 10 years and older and leave them at Nebraska's doorstep?!

Two things that are important: While its probably a given that Nebraska's legislature should have checked the wording of similar legislation throughout the country to avoid such a crisis, we certainly must laud their effort and motive.

In 2006, more than 905,000 children were found to be victims of child abuse. Nearly 75% of those were first time victims. Sixty-four per cent of those children were victimized through neglect and the age range of that victimization was 24 per 1000 children in ages birth through 1 year and 14 per 1000 children for ages 1-3. There is obviously a problem and Nebraska sought to address the problem in a proactive manner that is not quite as concerned with the parents unfitness as it is the well being of the child. Again, we should commend Nebraska for the effort.

However, there is a second issue: There is obviously a real problem out there when it comes to parenting that must addressed somehow. The Nebraska episode tells us about the parents willing to take extraordinary measures to 'give up' on their kids. Not newborns and infants, but in the case in Nebraska kids as young as 10 and as old as 16 and 17.

Children can be a chore. I tell friends that my children were kidnapped by body snatchers at the age of 12 and replaced by little monsters. I didn't get my real children back until they were about 25!

It is particularly difficult to resist 'old timers' syndrome and begin the 'back in my day' solution to parenting (along with everything else!).

The reality is that no parents - not even two parent families - were meant to do child rearing by themselves. To raise children in an even marginally effective manner, it really does take a village. I know that there was a period during which that African aphorism was demeaned and misrepresented as some kind of 'communist', 'socialist' rhetoric. But the fact that parents have not employed, or some communities have not provided adequate or easily accessible to the necessary resources and wisdom of the village is one reason Nebraska saw this amazing and sad phenomenon.

Social services, non-profit programs, churches, municipal programs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, enrichment programs in schools, trusted relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents; trusted neighbors and extended family all contribute to the physical emotional, intellectual and spiritual health of our children. Its called community and it works.

Of course there are no guarantees; there are no perfect parents. Under the best of circumstances children make bad choices, at times with consequences that are irrevocable. But almost no child stands a chance without the intervention of some kind of loving community.

At the church I pastored, we intentionally focused outreach to the children and youth in a public housing development in our area. We brought them to Vacation Bible School. Many kids joined our church through VBS, but just as many if not more, became a part of the life of our church whether they joined or not. They attended Sunday School, sang in the choir, participated in some way in nearly every thing we had to offer. We provided back to school supplies, gave Christmas toys by name. Included them in Easter plays and Christmas plays. One year we moved the Christmas Sunday service to the elementary school near the housing development and even I was amazed to see that the youth workers found a way to include nearly 100 kids in the Christmas play!

Some of these kids had parents who seemed not much older than their children. They had no life experience and some who succumbed to addictions and unhealthy lifestyles. The church had to become 'parents' for these children. We had members who checked on their school progress, got to know their teachers, got to know their parents. At times, a few members took these children home with them. Members, on their own, provided clothes and school supplies.

When VBS morphed into an annual Youth Retreat, there were members would pay for some of the kids to go to the retreat. Members who couldn't afford the full cost, partnered with other members to pay for their registration. Some kids who were old enough, worked the concession stands at SMU football games to earn their registration.

One couple 'adopted' other children in their neighborhood, feeding, clothing and working with them in school. One of the first Christian Rap Groups in our church, was formed almost entirely by a group of boys whose parents were no where close to being members, but they were boys who had been 'adopted' by a family in the church and virtually lived with them.

There were great successes and sad failures. Some kids graduated from high school, went on to college and now live stable lives. Some kids ended up on the street. As a church we made mistakes. Feeding all those kids once a week before or after Bible Study wreaked havoc on the church budget. Not every member was happy! At times I wasn't very happy! I insisted on more accountability, but also insisted that we find ways to do more for these children in substantive ways. There were times I had to defend our church's expenses for ministry to these youth and children. There were members who complained about 'those kids', and 'the little hoodlums'. Not all the kids were grateful. And believe me, that many young people were rough on church facilities! With the day care center we operated it meant that our church operated seven days a week!

But it was a church full of excitement! And while they were with us, they weren't getting into mischief and they were cared for, corrected and comforted when things went wrong. And for many of these children, we were not the only positive influence. Together, with those other influences - we were the village. And the parents (and grandparents), no matter their resources or capacity, were not alone.

We need a more 'safe havens' for all of our children. And we better figure it out soon.

This isn't Nebraska's problem alone. These youth and children belong to all of us.

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