A Florida Woman Was Charged Recently with Child Neglect after Leaving Her Four Teenage Sons to Fend for Themselves. How Can Psychiatry Support Such Families?

Article excerpt

Mothers all over America are asking courts and child protective agencies to take custody of their children because they believe the kids are out of control and are going to get into trouble. These are mostly single parents, and many mothers are teenagers who have no money and no life and think that they have no options.

In the case under discussion, reports say that the mother had four teenage boys--aged 17, 16, 14, and 13 years--who were always fighting and failed to obey her. Out of frustration, she reportedly said she was going "on strike" and began spending most nights at a friend's house.

According to reports, the mother made sure that the boys had food, and she checked on them occasionally.

Ultimately, the mother was charged with child neglect.

For several years, the juvenile court in Philadelphia has had a family-centered support program called Reasonable Efforts in Assessment Access and Prevention for just these kinds of cases. Over the years, hundreds of children have been taken from mothers who were almost over the edge.

These kinds of situations are the final common pathway of several psychosocial problems that culminate in the drastic steps taken by mothers who feel seriously overwhelmed.

How These Situations Can Develop

Some women feel overwhelmed because they're raising children alone. The number of children born to unwed mothers is enormous. In the African American community in Philadelphia, for example, 70% of the children are born to unwed mothers. Young boys and men who are well equipped to create a baby take no responsibility for the child after he/she is born.

Second, child-rearing practices in many of these families often fail to adhere to developmental principles, so that by the time the child is a teenager, he or she has already had a decade of failure to observe or learn how to take responsibility for his actions.

The average mother who finds herself in this situation often has no idea about how to raise a child. In far too many cases, the mother was a child when she started to have babies and, from her perspective, had no one in her life to guide her.

Third, the practice of hitting and/or beating children when they are little is counterproductive. Children and mothers may not believe that a connection exists between this type of discipline and future behavior, but clearly it does. All the hitting and screaming at the child are essential precursors to the child hitting and screaming on the street and in school. These are learned behaviors: the child's total lack of control had to come from somewhere.

We are watching a psychosocial change take place in America. Marriage and two parents are no longer seen as essential for having a baby. In many cases, little thought is given to the baby's needs or the costs of raising a child.

Because many people deplore abortion and contraception, kids have babies all the time, although studies do show that the pregnancy rate in the United States for teens aged 15-19 has been on the decline since the early 1990s. Still, my idea of "family values" is a family in which the children are raised by two parents who have been trained together in child development.

In my community work, I have asked some young men why they do not use condoms. The common answer has been that "it doesn't feel as good." When I asked about getting the girl pregnant or avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, they looked at me as if I were crazy. The narcissistic answer was the only one for them.

Girls who receive interventions before or after the first baby will have fewer pregnancies and, most likely, will graduate from high school. We have a program in our high schools in Philadelphia that does exactly that.

The boys, however, must be taught that there is a responsibility that goes with the "good feeling." In a recent focus group of 16-year-old delinquents, two of them expressed rage at their fathers for disappearing from their lives. …