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Abandoned Babies - a Plea for Thoughtful Media Reporting

By Yvette Vignando - 7th August 2012

This morning’s news reported a six week old baby allegedly having been abandoned by his parents on the side of the road at about 3am in a western Sydney suburb. It’s simply heartbreaking to think of such a young child being mistreated in this way. And my natural first reaction was anger at the adults involved in that child’s care.  Two writers on mainstream online media websites this morning called the situation as they saw it.

The first:
“Oh I could say a few uncouth words here.  Let's just say I hope police come down hard on these "so called" parents. That poor little boy :( Breaks my heart. What punishment do you think these parents should suffer?”  

and the second by Mia Freedman,

“We know enough facts to make this call: bad parents exist. And I cannot think of any plausible excuse for the actions of this couple…Well, I don’t really care about these parents. I care about the welfare of that baby (and others like him that we don’t hear about on the news) and I hope to God he is placed with a family who can meet his basic needs. Such as being tucked up safely at home in the middle of winter at 3am. A family who can shower him with love and care. A family capable of BEING parents. Good parents…let’s remember what a truly bad parent looks like …”

Here’s where I agree: that baby was clearly not receiving adequate care, his most basic needs were not being met and he may in fact have been in left in a situation of serious danger - it’s essential that he’s immediately cared for, his best interests put first and that he’s kept safe and nurtured during the rest of his childhood. And yes, I feel angry and devastated to think of a child being treated in this way, whatever the reasons for the situation.

But here’s where I disagree:  I think calling for “punishment” is pointless. I also think that ‘not caring’ about the parents at all or calling them “bad” is failing to contribute anything meaningful to the discussion of a child’s right to be cared for and protected from neglect or abuse. What is achieved by writers whipping up feelings of hate towards the parents and calling for retribution-style responses? In my opinion: nothing.

I’m not asking ‘the media’ or any of us to suspend judgement – on any reading of the situation, a baby left by the road is not being protected or cared for and it’s the responsibility of our community to make sure that baby is protected from any further neglect or mistreatment. What I am asking for is a more considered response by writers on ways our community might prevent children being neglected or abused. If parents are unable to care for their child because of immaturity, addiction or mental illness for example, what further measures can community and government services take to support those families and ensure a child is protected? Where would funds best be invested?

Without exhaustively covering why I don’t value calls for ‘punishment’ in these instances or ‘bad parent’ labels, I feel it’s highly unlikely that the parents in this news story would have been deterred by any threat of punishment.  And we all know that abandoning a baby by the side of the road is, on any reading, an awful and neglectful act.

It is a crime in NSW (and every other state and Territory) to abandon a child. Section 43 of the NSW Crimes Act provides for sentences of up to 5 years for any person who intentionally abandons a child under 7 years old without any reasonable excuse, if the abandonment causes a danger of death or serious injury to the child. In spite of this threat of punishment, a small number of children are abandoned every year in Australia.

I’d prefer to read discussion about how our community could improve its prevention and education programs to reduce the likelihood of children being abandoned or neglected. An internet search on the phenomenon of abandoned babies brings up myriad articles about what might lead to parents abandoning a baby.  Experts indicate that babies are usually abandoned by mothers who are extremely vulnerable and have serious social or health problems.  Dr Karen Healy, an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work and Applied Human Sciences at the University of Queensland wrote on ABC’s The Drum that abandonment is a rare event in Australia; at the time she wrote in 2007, her estimate was that there were probably less than 10 cases per year in Australia. Dr Healy also wrote that in most cases:

“The manner of abandonment tells us that (the parents) cared very much about their babies. In each case, the baby was left in a situation where they were likely to be found in a short amount of time by people who were able to look after the baby.”

It is rare for babies to be left in situations where they are likely to suffer extreme harm, but sadly those cases do exist.  And there are many more reports each year of other kinds of child neglect and abuse in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that in Australia, during 2010–11, there were 237,273 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect , with 40,466 reports substantiated – so we know that there’s much more work to be done to protect the most vulnerable children in Australia.

Looking to the United States, the University of Berkeley in California runs a National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center – the Center is funded by the U.S. Federal Children’s Bureau and was set up after the passing of an Abandoned Infants Assistance Act.  As well as supporting situations where infants are left in hospitals by parents, the Center publishes information about “discarded babies” (such a disturbing term) and notes that there is no national data kept on this phenomenon in the U.S. ; their information suggests that  individuals who commit acts of neonaticide and public abandonment are predominantly “young, unmarried, physically healthy women who are pregnant for the first time and not addicted to substances” and referring to mothers, that “these women are also generally considered to lack emotional maturity, problem solving abilities, and adequate coping skills” .

I think as bloggers, journalists and publishers we can do better in these rare but extremely disturbing situations where a baby is abandoned. Let’s not 'shoot from the hip' on these issues; instead let’s lead discussion on prevention, family support services and how our community can protect and nurture all our children, especially the most vulnerable and at risk.

Please also read, republished with permission from The Conversation website: "Safe haven: preventing women from harming their babies by Lorana Bartels, Senior Lecturer in Law at Canberra University

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