Michelle Jones spent 20 years in prison for the murder of her child, who was reportedly conceived of nonconsensual sex and killed years later in the midst of what Jones described as a psychotic episode.
Her story has recently gained much discussion because she was denied duly earned admission to Harvard’s graduate history program when they learned about the crime. Jones has been accepted by New York University, where she will have a chance to thrive.
Much of the media attention is appropriately on Harvard’s decision to reject Jones, a decision that appears to be motivated by fear of how the news might spin their being accepting of a child murderer. But the dimension of Jones’ story that interests me is that of an adolescent who never wished to be a parent, was forced to do so, and the devastating consequences that had for her and the child.
There is a great need to review the laws by which we judge parents who do not wish to parent and, in too many cases, sentence their children to unnecessarily harsh lives.
A little more background on Jones. She had a child at age 14. When her mother beat her for it, she was sent to a group home. Custody of her child was initially granted to the family of the baby’s father, and then Jones was told to resume custody of the child.
Shortly after this transition, the child disappeared.
Although this is not a typical series of events for abandoning parents, it includes key features in common:
- Having a child when you are not ready to care for her
- Intently wanting another life other than the life of parenting
- Kin are not judged to be an acceptable alternative to care for the child
- Having no obvious legal way to say that you do not want to parent this child
Every American state has laws against abandoning a child and most offer little legal room to voluntarily relinquish custody of a child you cannot parent effectively. That small legal window provided in most states is what’s known as a safe haven law.
These laws currently provide a narrow window of time for parents who wish to surrender their child. Most states require the surrender in 72 hours, a month or 90 days; a few permit it up to a year after the child is born. The surrender must be to a responsible adult with far more specificity about who that adult can be in other states.
Noting the limited success of safe haven laws, the bipartisan National Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities recently recommended that each state extend this allowable time to one year. This is still too short. As in the case of Jones, many parents struggle mightily with the responsibilities of parenting for years. They know that this is not right for them and, as a result, they barely cover the basics of acceptable parenting.
A very small number of these parents will kill their children. Many more will abuse or neglect their children, which is a path to having their child removed from their care and placed into foster care. In many other families, children will be dragged through life by a resentful parent.
We need a broader and more effective safe surrender program. What if a few states acted to extend the age of surrender to 1 year, and, then, if the children’s services agencies did not find themselves overwhelmed, move it to two years? And then three, and, eventually, to five years?
What if more parents considering this had the opportunity to come in and talk to a professional about their predicament, without fearing arrest for abandoning their child or without having a maltreatment allegation substantiated to get help from children’s services? Could we lessen the child mortality rate? Could we save some parents from role failure in roles that no one thinks they can manage?
Safe haven offers an opportunity to help many desperate parents get the assistance they need to not feel that way. For the parents who genuinely cannot continue in the role, it offers a path for children to be adopted by people who are eager to become parents, or with relatives who can better care for them.
A wider window on safe haven laws means fewer kids who die each year at the hands of their parents, or whose hopes for a decent life die because they and their parents have no safe passage to anything approaching a flourishing life.
Richard Barth is dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work.