Abandoned children: signs of families who need help

While diesel trucks and station wagons rumble past on Interstate 71, travelers who pull into any of the roadside rest areas are drawn in quiet clusters to the posters taped to restroom walls and information bulletin boards. At the top of each poster is a black and white photograph of a grinning, six-month-old baby boy. Below the photo is a plea for information that could lead authorities to the woman who abandoned him in a suitcase at a rest area last May.

Ryan, as the baby has been named by the county welfare department that has temporary custody of him, is now living in a foster home while state police and staff from the county prosecutor's office track down every lead that comes in. They're currently circulating a composite sketch of a woman who was seen hitchhiking with an infant fitting Ryan's description, in hopes that the drawing will jog someone's memory.

If Ryan's mother isn't found by the end of the year, and if she doesn't come forward to claim her son, he'll be adopted by one of the many families in Ashland County who have been waiting - some of them for years - for a baby of their own to care for. Ryan will have a new home and doting new parents.

A happy ending to what could have been a tragic story? In many ways, yes. But the complete story doesn't end there.

Locating adoptive parents for abandoned babies, most of whom are only a few days old - or even hours old - when they are found, is relatively easy because of the great demand for healthy infants. But finding solutions to the kinds of problems that cause a mother or father to give up a child is a far more serious challenge.

As the number of children abandoned each year continues to climb, experts on family issues are looking for ways to halt the alarming trend. The six-hour-old baby girl left on the lawn of a Methodist church in Leonia, N.J., and the newborn baby boy found wrapped in a plastic bag on a sunbaked airport parking lot in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are signs of families urgently in need of help, these experts say.

A study conducted by the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect shows that during the period from May 1979 through April 1980 some 6,700 children were abandoned nationwide. But the figures are somewhat misleading, according to center director James Harrell.

''When you add those 6,700 cases to the 18,900 cases listed under the rubric of 'other refusal to provide custody,' which includes teen-agers who are forced out of their homes by their parents, the overall abandonment figures go far beyond the picture of a baby left on an orphanage doorstep,'' he explains.

How could they? is probably the first reaction most readers have to a newspaper account of an abandoned baby. How could parents give up a tiny infant or turn their backs on an older child?

''Only very infrequently are children abandoned for lack of caring,'' says June Lloyd, a sociologist. ''People who give up their children are people who do not see themselves as having any other options. Leaving a baby on a church step is an attempt to get someone to realize how desperate their situation is.''

Ms. Lloyd is director of training at the National Resource Center on Family Based Services at the University of Iowa. Her comments are echoed by the center director, Marvin Bryce.

''Abandonment happens because people either don't know how to go about asking for help, or because they don't trust their communities,'' Dr. Bryce says.

Since 1977 the center has been providing technical assistance to state departments of social services and private agencies that are interested in redirecting their efforts and resources away from substitute family care systems - such as institutional care, foster care, and group home care - and toward the family unit.

''Traditionally it was believed that the child could only make advancement if he was separated from his natural parents,'' Ms. Lloyd explains. ''But more and more, the importance of the natural family to the child is being seen.''

Instead of removing a child from his family while problems are being worked out, family-based services focus on matching services to the family's immediate needs. Social workers may go directly into a home to introduce changes in parenting and homemaking skills and suggest ways to improve marital communication. ''The workers make themselves available and can be there in the home every day for a couple of weeks, if necessary,'' Ms. Lloyd continues. ''That way, they're around at times of the day when families experience the greatest stress, and they can help parents avoid losing their composure in the process of learning new methods of managing or disciplining children.''

If a child has to be removed from his family temporarily and placed in foster care, family-based services teach the foster parents to see themselves as providing a service to the troubled family instead of coming to the rescue of the child. The foster parents are encouraged to help the child remember his parents' birthdays and to write them frequently. The natural parents are consulted on all important decisions, from buying a winter coat to school conferences.

''Basically, family-based services are an innately humane and sensible approach to helping families solve problems,'' Ms. Lloyd adds. ''A social worker who's been exposed to this approach invariably says, 'If I could have these kinds of circumstances to work in, maybe I really could make a difference.' ''

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