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Safety nets for families

October 28, 2008

For the last few weeks, the nation has watched, appalled, as parents exploited Nebraska's poorly written safe-haven law -- meant to safeguard newborn babies -- using it to discard their young children and teenagers at hospitals without fear of prosecution. By now, the stories are well known: One mother drove for hours from Michigan to abandon an unruly teen; a bereaved widower turned over nine of his children, saying he could no longer care for them. In all, at least 20 children have been abandoned in Nebraska since the law took effect in July. The unicameral Legislature reconvenes in January, and Gov. Dave Heineman and a majority of legislators already say the first order of business will be to amend the law.

Next should come an intensive effort to publicize the counseling and family intervention services that are available to struggling families. This goes for Nebraska and also every state and county across the country. Nebraska's problem was unique because of a poorly written law, but the truth is that parents and guardians have always needed help raising their children, and increasingly that help is coming from government. Only a generation ago, relatives pitched in, as did neighbors, friends, churches and civic organizations. But for many today, those bonds are too weak to form a meaningful safety net.

In Los Angeles, many parents turn to the county for help. Last year, the Department of Children and Family Services hotline received 5,543 referrals for "caregiver absence or incapacity." Admittedly, that category encompasses parents who are incarcerated, hospitalized or homeless. But officials say it also includes those who voluntarily, temporarily relinquish children. For families in need of respite, the county will take children into custody for up to six months -- no court order involved. Parents must then participate in county programs meant to help reunite the family. To have their children returned to them, they must demonstrate that they are capable of being responsible. If not, the courts intervene. These temporary separations, officials say, often make the difference for a family that just needs help during a rough patch -- say, a hospitalization or the loss of a home.

Today more than ever, struggling families across the country need to know what services are available. Here are some in Southern California: L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services hotline, (800) 540-4000; Orange County Child Abuse Registry, (800) 207-4464; Ventura County Human Services Agency hotline, (805) 654-3200. In all three counties, you can dial 211 for a list of available services.

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