Six-year-old James Hutchinson died chasing after his mother while she drove away, intending to abandon him, according to court documents that now hold her responsible for his death.
When we cover extreme cases of child abuse like Hutchinson’s, viewers often respond with questions: Why didn’t the parent drop the child off somewhere safe? Isn’t there some place that would take a child who is no longer wanted?
I’ve wondered the same things.
The answer to the first question is difficult to know without insight into the parent’s state of mind. The answer to the second starts with a yes, but.
“It’s really not that simple,” explained child endangerment attorney Brad Groene.
Yes, Ohio has a “safe haven” law that allows struggling parents to leave children at hospitals, fire stations or police departments, but the law only applies to newborns. Any child older than 30 days is too old to be legally placed in a “safe haven.”
Groene said a struggling parent with thoughts of abandoning their child should call police or a hospital.
Having these thoughts and explaining them in hope of finding help isn’t a crime, he said. Only acting on them is a crime. And reaching out to police or medical professionals can help a desperate parent connect with financial assistance programs, mental health care or other sorely needed resources to address the root of their dark thoughts.
“People are there to help to try to avoid these awful situations that we've been made aware of,” Groene said. “That would be my advice. There are people there that are willing to help, willing to work with you to make sure that that child gets what they need.”
Shawna Dunn, who runs the crisis pregnancy center A Caring Place, said she’s seen more clients seeking mental health care, adoption options and financial help in the last year than years before.
“We have been doing this for 25 years, and I have never really seen quite a difference in how people are being impacted, especially young parents,” she said. “Because I think it is very difficult. There used to be all these mommy groups and churches and things, and now people are very hesitant to gather and meet. I think it's just very difficult.”
Safe Families for Children is another option in Cincinnati — a network of people who foster children while allowing parents to maintain a relationship with them.
Polly Camery, Dunn’s partner at A Caring Place, said she recommends Safe Families for Children to some of their clients.
“They help take care of the children and then they can (eventually) get their children back,” she said. “So when I hear stories in the news about families that have harmed their children because they wanted a way out — Safe Families is a way out, I feel. And I love the way that their system works.”