Dr. Keith: Lessons Learned From Nebraska's Safe Haven Law

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Sometimes, making a mistake teaches an invaluable lesson. And so it is with the loophole in Nebraska's "safe haven" law, a statute that allows parents to drop off children at hospital emergency rooms if they are unable to care for them. The trouble is, Nebraska lawmakers neglected to define "child." So far, 34 children, some of them as old as 17, have been dropped off, including two teenagers just last Thursday.

A special legislative session is underway in Nebraska to fix the law. While different bills have been offered, the legislature will probably end up defining a "child" as one year of age or under.

Fixing the safe haven law, however, won't fix the problem that the mistake in Nebraska has uncovered. Many parents there-and across the nation-feel utterly unable to parent effectively and are looking for a way out.

It would be easy to demonize parents who bring a 5 or 13 or 17-year-old son or daughter to the hospital and say goodbye, but I don't presume that all or most of these parents are unfeeling monsters looking to shirk responsibility and lay it at the doorstep of government. And even for the percentage of parents who are that disordered in their characters, I wouldn't want their children to remain in their custody, anyhow.

The real problem isn't the Nebraska loophole, it's the lack of available guidance and services for parents who are dealing with children and adolescents more prone than ever to use alcohol and illicit drugs, fall victim to psychiatric disorders like Attention Deficit Disorder and Bipolar Disorder and even succumb to joining gangs (which are now invading the suburbs, not just confined to urban centers). The story of a Florida man driving all the way to Nebraska to drop off his 11-year-old boy is a story of desperation, not depravity.

I've always believed that we end up paying exponentially, in the long run, for underestimating how many American families are in crisis, without parents who can properly direct, discipline and nurture their kids. Now, we have a little window, thanks to Nebraska, on the intensity of the trouble in some families, though still no insight into the real number of such families.

What is called for is a system of graduated aid to families in psychological distress. This has to begin with case finding-perhaps through the schools-and continue through a spectrum of services, including parenting courses, child counseling and medication clinics, respite services and, yes, beefed up options for good foster care and adoption.

Here's something to think about_ I recently referred a Massachusetts girl to a local child psychiatrist for help with symptoms that were overwhelming her parents and her school system. Until she used my name to move up on the waiting list, she was given an appointment four months down the road. And that's Massachusetts, comparatively rich in medical resources. According to Time magazine, Nebraska has a grand total of six child psychiatrists in the entire state.

So many in Congress are all about bailing out the auto industry and the banking industry and the mortgage industry and maybe a few cities along the way, moves that will ultimately weaken the marrow of our economy, upon which rests the hope for renewed ideas and approaches to real economic growth. Some of their energy would be better spent bailing out emotionally overwhelmed American families, upon whose children's shoulders rests the future.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at


or e-mail him