This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
SHE HAD TO LIE. She stood in the window of the little white house and looked outside at her boys on the lawn.
It was warm for September, and they seemed happy, throwing a baseball in the afternoon light under a huge Nebraska sky. The hill behind them sloped away to the Missouri River, and beyond it the plains of Iowa stretched toward the eastern horizon, with rocky bluffs at the far edge like sentinels against the dawn. Her own dawn was coming. All she had to do was lie.
Lavennia Coover took a breath and stepped outside. The sun streamed over her shoulders as she walked toward the boys, casting shadows in their direction. “Guys,” she called out. It had to sound casual. “Let’s go for a ride.” For a moment, the words seemed to hang in the air, and she wondered if they already knew, but then they were ambling toward the pickup, oblivious to what was coming.
Yes, she thought. It’s happening.
She closed them into the backseat and steered down the long driveway through acres of corn, the boys babbling mindlessly about sports and whatever else—Lavennia paid no attention. She felt numb and jittery all at once, every fiber in her body strained in anticipation of what might come, some lapse in the environment, some change in the atmosphere, some hint that the trick was up. At the base of the driveway, she turned onto the river road, heading toward town. Time was everything, and she played for more.
“You guys hungry?” she asked, pulling into a McDonald’s drive-thru. They shouted their orders, and she smiled. Today, she thought, they can have anything they want—just keep them distracted. She ordered a Big Mac and nuggets, Cokes and fries, passing the cups and bags into the backseat, and in the crinkling of wrappers and happy chatter, she slipped onto the highway, heading south toward Omaha. Sixty miles to go.
“Where are we going?” Colby asked suddenly.
“Just driving,” she said. She braced herself, but they let it pass, rummaging through their bags of food, and she exhaled, watching the miles tick past: five, then ten; fifteen, now twenty. Silently, she began to pray: Please, God. Just let us get there.
It would all depend on Skyler, of course. Everything did. He was the youngest of her three, only 11, but he missed nothing and trusted less. Eventually, he would finish his nuggets and his fries and his Coke, and he would look up and out the window, and in that instant he would know. And then… Lavennia winced at the thought. Then, it was impossible to predict. He might leap from the truck onto the open road. He’d done worse. Or lunge into the front seat, pummeling her with his fists and feet, sinking his teeth into her arms. He’d done that before, too.
When she finally saw the exit in the distance, she angled the truck toward the ramp, glancing over her shoulder at Skyler… and there it was: the storm of recognition gathering on his face. His eyes narrowed, his fists clenched; the air seemed to withdraw around her. “You’re taking me to that place!” he shouted.
“No,” she said. “We’re just driving.”
“Yes, you are!” he screamed. “YOU LIAR!”
She looked back again, searching his face for the little boy within, but he was gone, consumed with fear and fury. For the first time, she felt a flash of alarm. The violence was coming. She reached for her cell phone and dialed quickly. “Hello,” she said, tears beginning to stream down her face. “I’m bringing my son. I need security to meet us.”
In the back, Skyler slumped into his seat. He began to cry, then plead. “Mommy,” he sobbed, “I’ll be good. I promise, I’ll be nice. I’ll do whatever you want.…”
She felt lost. She felt like turning around. She felt like holding him close, and crying together, and going home. She felt like dying. But she said nothing, and the truck fell silent. Up ahead she could see the hospital.
She was almost there. He was almost gone.
IT HAS NEVER been easier to abandon a child. Over the past ten years, every American state has been working to make the process simpler. Simpler, that is, to haul a newborn baby into a police station, a hospital, or even a firehouse and just walk away—without signing anything or telling anyone your name, without providing any medical records or proof of custody, or even a reason why. For the first 200 years of our country’s history, to do such a thing was regarded as an abomination and a crime, punishable under a host of charges, from reckless endangerment to child abuse. Today, in all fifty states, it is every parent’s right, enshrined into law.
In theory these new laws, commonly known as safe havens, are written to protect newborns—and to prevent so-called Dumpster babies—by giving desperate parents a way out. The first safe haven was passed in Texas in 1999, after thirteen abandoned infants were discovered in a ten-month period, and as other states have followed suit, this Dumpster-baby scenario has become a rallying cry for the safe-haven movement: Faced with the specter of babies left in alleys, gullies, and backyards, few state legislators are willing to drag their heels or demand proof that the laws actually work. Yet after ten years, it is increasingly clear that “safe havens” are anything but.
For one thing, the promise of anonymity is a double-edged sword: While it may draw some parents from the brink of disaster, it can also create disasters of its own. Under the shield of safe havens, for example, a frustrated young father, overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, can easily deliver his infant to a remote police station and be rid of the burden in a stroke—knowing that nobody can stop him or ask him any questions, that there is no way of tracking him down, and that the child’s mother, who may not even be aware of his decision, will almost certainly never find her baby. For that matter, a jealous boyfriend might do the same thing with a child not his own; under the protective banner of safe havens, there is no way to verify that an adult who leaves a child is related in any way.
Just as troubling is the question of who actually uses the laws. Many experts are concerned that the parents who need safe havens the most are the least likely to use them. As Michelle Oberman, an expert on infanticide at Santa Clara law school, points out, parents who kill newborn children tend to fit a very narrow demographic. “They are, for the most part, young girls under the age of 18,” she says. “They are terrified by the thought of having a baby. They conceal the pregnancy from friends and family. They have little to no prenatal care. And in the vast majority of cases, the baby is delivered in the bathroom, into a toilet. So their state of mind speaks for itself: the panic, the confusion, the exhaustion, the pain.”
According to Margaret Spinelli, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and author of Infanticide, that state of mind has a clinical name: psychosis. “The idea of pregnancy is so overwhelming to these women that they mount a kind of dissociative defense,” she says. “When they deliver the baby, there is a break with reality. Many of them become psychotic.”
Given this grim reality, the basic premise of safe havens—that these traumatized young women, after hiding their pregnancies for nine months, rejecting all medical attention, and birthing in shame, will, in the midst of a psychotic episode, spontaneously achieve a moment of clarity and march into a police station to expose their darkest secret to a complete stranger and surrender the child they have worked so hard to conceal—begs credulity.
Exactly who does use the safe-haven laws is difficult to discern. Most states make no effort to study the cases or compile any data, and the anonymous nature of the process makes outside research nearly impossible. But certain evidence does lend insight. Over the past decade, for example, many of the parents who have used safe havens and spoken publicly about it, defend the laws—not as a way to protect infants from harm but as an alternative to the adoption process, which can be slow and bureaucratic. For these parents, then, the real value of safe havens is not to save children’s lives but parents’ time.
Despite these concerns, the drumbeat for states to pass a safe-haven law has only grown louder with time, and last summer, after years of wrestling with the issue, Nebraska became the last state to enact one. Yet as that bill made its way through the legislature, something odd happened: When senators couldn’t agree on an age limit for the law (in other states, it applies to children from three days to 1 year old), the Nebraska legislators decided on…no age limit at all.
In an instant, the law was transformed: from the last passenger on the safe-haven bandwagon to a pioneer into uncharted territory. For the first time in American history, it was not only legal to relinquish a baby; in Nebraska it was okay to abandon any child of any age for any reason at any time—with the full protection of the law.
Child abandonment was no longer a crime.
"ANOTHER SAFE HAVEN!" the registration nurse shouted, and Lavennia wanted to disappear. She stood at the counter, with Skyler and Colby sulking beside her and security guards lingering nearby. In the back, nurses and medical staff scurried around, gathering paperwork. “Safe haven,” they muttered to one another, shooting disapproving glances in her direction.
She had never felt so alone.
For years she struggled to avoid this day. The sickness struck when Skyler was only 7—epic tantrums, earth-shattering fits. At the slightest provocation, the gentlest rebuff, he would break into a rage, hysterical, red-faced and feverish, thrashing around the room and destroying things. Most of his fury was directed at her. He would launch himself in her direction, biting her arms and legs and face, scratching and kicking and punching all at once, a torrent of violent motion. At first, she wondered if it was all an act, a cry for attention. She would search his eyes for some hint of recognition, but all she found was anger. “It’s like his soul is gone,” she told her mom. In the midst of the fits, she would try to calm him, pulling him close and whispering to him beneath incessant shrieks of curdling rage. Eventually, he would crash into sleep; hours later, when he woke, he would blink his eyes and ask what had happened. She studied his eyes again for some clue that he was feigning innocence, but all she saw was confusion and fatigue.
It was like lightning had struck her twice. Her oldest, Natosha, had struggled with mental illness for years. Now, at 18, she was out of the house, but the years of turmoil consumed her childhood, turning their home into a hellish battlefield. Her father left when she was 8. By 9, Natosha was throwing fits like Skyler’s. By 12, she was refusing to attend school. By 14, she was staying out late, doing drugs with boys, and viciously beating her brothers. One morning she kicked Lavennia in the face. Lavennia took her to special schools; she tried therapy, group homes, anything she could find, paying thousands of dollars, but one by one, the programs sent Natosha back. There was nothing they could do. She was too far gone. By the end of that year, she’d slipped away entirely—after one too many encounters with police, she was remanded to state custody. Over the next three years, she would pass through fourteen placements—a new home every eleven weeks—running away or being expelled each time.
Through it all, Lavennia struggled to make a normal life for Skyler and Colby. She finished college when Natosha was young, with a major in elementary education and a teaching certificate for early childhood. She had always wanted to work with disadvantaged kids, so she took a job on the Omaha reservation, teaching second grade, then kindergarten. She attended graduate school one weekend a month, earning a master’s degree in 2006. And last year, she made a down payment on a new home, moving into the little white house on the hill. But just as the family was settling in, just as Natosha was graduating from state services and moving into an apartment with her friends, Skyler’s illness began to peak.
The degeneration had been slow but relentless. It began in second grade, the outbursts spilling from home into school—two or three days a week his teacher would call, interrupting her at work. Skyler was having a fit again. He was beyond control. No one could stop him. He was throwing chairs against the walls, hurling scissors and pencils, shrieking and knocking over desks. Lavennia would leave her class, drive twenty-five miles to Skyler’s school, talk to him and calm him, wait for the episode to pass, and then drive the twenty-five miles back.
One day she found him pinned beneath a teacher on the floor behind a secretary’s office. She registered a complaint and transferred him to the school where she worked; they made the drive together each morning, and his classroom was right next to hers, but nothing changed. Within a week, he was having fits again, throwing desks and books and chairs. She could hear clamoring through the walls of her classroom. Eventually, his teacher would evacuate the other students, then come next door to get Lavennia. She would go in alone, try to calm him, and pray it wouldn’t happen again. But it always did.
After one of Skyler’s rages, when he was asleep, Lavennia carried him to her truck and took him to a hospital emergency room. He was admitted for a psychological evaluation, then transferred into a psychiatric unit. In the structure of the hospital, with therapy and care, he seemed to improve. But her insurance covered only three days, and on the fourth Skyler was sent home. He brought a medley of new medicines—Depakote and Seroquel for bipolar disorder, Adderall for hyperactivity. He was 8 years old. It was enough medication to tranquilize a horse.
Now Skyler merely slept. He slept in class, through the evenings, through the night. When he wasn’t sleeping, he still raged—demolishing the house or the classroom or the car, wherever he happened to be. Lavennia waited ten days for the medicine to work, then she brought Skyler back to the hospital. This time, her insurance covered five days.
After that she enrolled him in an outpatient program for behavior modification and took three weeks off work to drive him—ninety miles each way. She spent each day in the waiting room, doing homework for her master’s program or just staring into space, listening to the second hand of a wall clock and wondering how it had come to this. Each evening they drove the ninety miles home.
When the program was over, he returned to school, but there was still no change. If anything, he was more violent. She placed him in a special class for difficult kids, but he fought with the other kids and flew into rages, crashing to sleep on the classroom floor. He was, she realized, not a child but a zombie—between the drugs and the episodes, he was never just a boy. She tried alternative treatments—a Reiki master, biofeedback—but after a few sessions he refused to cooperate.
A year drained by and Skyler was 9; then another and he was 10. In the special class, his language became coarse—in the midst of a fit, he would curse at her and spit. Evenings, he took it out on Colby, who was a year older but quiet and subdued. Lavennia felt imprisoned in her own house. Her options were vanishing by the day. Her insurance had dried up. She didn’t qualify for Medicaid. She had no money for private care. And she was more than $10,000 in debt from the programs she had tried already. Worst of all, she had lost the upper hand with Skyler. He was just 11, but he was five feet tall and 120 pounds. In the thrall of a rage, he could easily overpower her. When school began, he refused to go. She tried dragging him to the truck, but he fought her off—kicking, punching, spitting, biting, cursing, tearing at her face. Finally, she gave up. For three weeks, she left him at home alone. When she returned each day, she found the house demolished—food smeared on the walls and strewn on the floors, toys smashed in pieces everywhere. He would go into her bedroom and pillage her jewelry box, scattering her personal things through the house. He emptied cupboards onto the floor. He began taking the deck apart, ripping off the wooden arm rails. She came home one day and found the family cat nearly dead, limping and wheezing, covered with cuts and gashes, hair ripped out. There was a broken piece of wood beside the house, with nails hammered halfway through like a primitive club. She brought it to Skyler, but he denied that it was his. She pushed him for answers, but he answered with rage.
At night Lavennia huddled in her bedroom, whispering into the phone with her parents. One day her mother mentioned a new law she had read about in the paper: If Lavennia took Skyler back to the emergency room, now they had to take him, and keep him, and help him, and treat him. They had no choice. And the state would pay.
Lavennia found that hard to believe. She called the hospital in Omaha to see if it was true. Would they really take him? Yes, they would. And would he really get help? “Oh, definitely,” a nurse told her.
After that, Lavennia began to wonder: Not whether, but how. How would she get Skyler into the truck? How could she convince him to go? For weeks, he had refused to leave the house.
She would have to trick him. She would have to lie.
Now she stood at the registration desk, watching nurses scramble for admission papers. She could feel their scorn wash over her like waves of heat—or was she only imagining that? She felt broken. Sickened. Terrified. In a few hours, she would leave the hospital and drive home with Colby through the black night, leaving Skyler behind. Her own son, no longer hers. She wondered how she would find the strength to walk away. She wondered if he would ever forgive her. She wondered if she would forgive herself. This was what it had come to: To save her son, she had to give him up.
WITHIN WEEKS OF the safe haven’s passage, children like Skyler began pouring into Nebraska hospitals. During the first month, fourteen kids were dropped off. In the second month, the number rose to twenty-four. And in the third, November of last year, it reached thirty-six.
But not a single infant was among them.
Whatever one thought of safe-haven laws, this was clearly something else: The kids in Nebraska were not unwanted; they were sick—mostly teens and preteens, in various stages of distress. There was the 11-year-old boy who had violently attacked his grand-father. The 12-year-old who sexually assaulted girls. The 17-year-old, in and out of psychiatric hospitals since the age of 6. The 13-year-old delivered by his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother—a family choice, endured together. They came from all over Nebraska but also beyond—from Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, California. And the one thing they had in common was a history of mental illness. According to a report by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, out of the first thirty children relinquished in Nebraska, all but three had a history of psychiatric problems. Some, like Skyler, were so far gone that they were transferred into lockdown units immediately, remaining there for weeks, even months to come.
They appeared at the hospitals like ghosts emerging from some hidden world, a place that most of us never see, where hope has died and parents give up, where children disappear into themselves. Some struggled and fought on the way in, others cried and begged in desperation, still others showed no reaction at all, too tired, too confused, too sick to understand. In the cold abstraction of political debate, one could argue the role of government endlessly, the balance between an individual and the state, between parental responsibility and social assistance, but here was something that seemed to rise above: Here were children. Sick children. Sad and lost and damaged children, whose parents—rightly or wrongly, it made no difference to a 9-year-old girl—had lost hope and given up. If there was ever a cause for intervention, if there was ever a time to help anyone, if there was any social contract at all, weren’t these children, tormented by demons, forsaken by parents, weren’t these 8-year-olds and 11-year-olds, 6-year-olds and 12-year-olds, the founding imperative of society itself?
In Nebraska that question was begging for an answer. A year earlier, the legislature had convened a task force to assess mental-health care for kids, and the report came back blistering: In eighty-six of the state’s ninety-three counties, facilities were either understaffed or nonexistent. Children spent months on “long waiting lists” for care. Communication between agencies was “uncoordinated,” and the road to treatment was so convoluted that it was nearly impossible for parents “to understand the myriad eligibility requirements, assessment processes, service models, funding requirements, service coordination structures, and data collection mandates.” Worst of all, there was nobody keeping track—no oversight agency or internal accountability. “It is impossible,” the report concluded, “to determine systematically whether the expenditures of public funds have resulted in a benefit to the state and its citizens.”
Not that Nebraska was unique. The influx of kids from so far away—from the north and south, from both coasts—was a reminder that children’s mental health is deteriorating everywhere. In a society where 46 million people have no health insurance at all, and where even the best policies offer little for psychiatric care, the emotional well-being of children has simply dropped off the radar. According to the most recent report from the Surgeon General, there are as many as 9 million children in America today who suffer from “serious emotional disturbances,” but 70 percent won’t receive any care at all. That’s more than 6 million children with nowhere to turn—no therapy, no medication, no recovery, no future. For their parents, it made little difference whether the law in Nebraska was called a “safe haven” or a “broken piano.” It made no difference whether this safe haven was different from other safe havens, or whether other safe-haven laws worked. What mattered to them, all that mattered, was that, like Lavennia Coover, they could finally bring their children to a hospital.
And this time, nobody could turn them away.
IT WAS A FRIGID November morning, clear and bright, when Lavennia’s bus pulled up to the state capitol in Lincoln. She stepped outside and cinched her coat, staring up at the wide limestone steps rising toward the white megalith of the capitol. She had never wanted to come to this place; she had to come.
It was eight weeks since she dropped Skyler at the hospital, and for eight weeks, he’d been getting help. For eight weeks, he lived in a psychiatric ward, with group sessions and personal therapy, with twenty-four-hour care and a surplus of staff. For eight weeks, she watched him stabilize and improve; for eight weeks, she called and visited, sent him clothes and cards and snacks. And for eight weeks, she listened to the director of the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, a man named Todd Landry, attack everything she was doing.
The Nebraska safe haven was national news now, and The New York Times had come to town, and Time magazine, and ABC News, and Landry found time for all of them, answering their questions and preening for their cameras, seething with hostility toward the parents who used the new law.
It was all a matter of laziness, he explained. These parents just didn’t care.
Almost every day, there seemed to be a new quote from Landry. The morning after Lavennia dropped Skyler, he was in the Lincoln paper, discussing her case. “It’s the job of the parent to be a parent,” he said. “I am very concerned that people are deciding they no longer want to be a parent and are taking advantage of the law.” A few days later, he was in The New York Times: “The appropriate response is to reach out to family. What is not appropriate is just to say, ‘I’m tired of dealing with this,’ and drop the child off.” Soon after, he assured the Omaha paper that the only problem in Nebraska was the safe-haven law itself. “You fix that situation,” he explained, “and I think all these other questions disappear.”
Disappear? Lavennia thought as she read it. You take away the help and our problems will disappear?
As the days went by, with each new quote and condemnation from Landry, Lavennia became more upset, then angry, then determined. This was the director of Family Services? This was the man whose $130,000 salary she paid with her taxes? She wrote a letter to the newspapers defending her decision, and when a state senator, Amanda McGill, called to offer support, Lavennia agreed to visit the capitol and tell her story to McGill’s committee. If Landry was going on the offensive, she figured, someone had to fight back.
But now, as she found a seat in the hearing room, Lavennia began to have second thoughts. All around her, senators and reporters swarmed, setting up laptop computers and cameras and lights, shaking hands and slapping backs. She felt removed from it all, an outsider, just a girl from the plains with a sick kid and a sad story.
One of the senators made her especially nervous. Nobody in Nebraska opposed the new law more than Ernie Chambers. He had blocked its passage for nearly a decade, squelching versions in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2007. He finally relented in 2008, allowing the safe haven to pass, but now that it was getting national attention, with children flooding state hospitals, Chambers felt more than a little vindicated. “I never supported this,” he reminded everyone. “I’m the one who tried to stop it.”
At 71, Chambers was both an icon and a legend in Nebraska. He’d been in the legislature half his life, but he retained the attitude and appearance of an outsider: Where other senators wore suits and ties to work, Chambers arrived each day in faded jeans and a T-shirt; while others accepted the $12,000 salary as symbolic, Chambers subsisted on it for thirty-eight years, saying with a shrug, “My needs are meager.” With his casual clothes and informal manner, he could appear docile at first glance, and the illusion was only reinforced by his office, which looked less like a five-room senatorial suite than the ruins of a ransacked law library: Sheaves of paper were strewn in every direction, and nearly all the floor space was crammed with detritus—stacks of cardboard boxes six feet high, typewriters buried under piles of clothing, paper plates and coffee mugs, and a white miniature poodle, Nicole, meandering among it all, disappearing through tunnels in the cardboard jungle. Yet beneath the surface, Chambers was lit with a ferocious energy. He had come to prominence during the civil rights movement, rousing customers at his Omaha barbershop with polemics against the white oppressor and condemning any talk of nonviolent resistance. In the 1967 film A Time for Burning, he can be seen excoriating a white preacher with characteristic zeal: “We’ve studied your history. You did not take over this country by singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ You’re treaty breakers, you’re liars, you’re thieves. You’ve raped entire continents and races of people. Your religion means nothing. And here’s what I’ll say: I wish you would follow Jesus like we have followed him, because if you did, then we’d be in charge tomorrow.” In the forty years since, Chambers had not mellowed much, suing to remove the state legislature’s chaplain in 1980, and in 2007 going even farther, suing God himself in state court for all the calamities of the world. As a senator, Chambers was known for fiery speeches and merciless inquisitions—interrupting witnesses, challenging their answers, demanding the truth, and threatening charges of contempt. Today, his witness would be Lavennia Coover—defending a law that Chambers despised.
As Lavennia waited for her turn to speak, Chambers reiterated his case against the safe haven. “What difference does it make if the law is three hours, three days, or like now, no age limit at all?” he asked. “I don’t believe a person on this panel can know what it means to feel abandoned. My parents never abandoned me, but I was certainly abandoned when I went to school. When I was in that white teacher’s classroom, she read Little Black Sambo, and I was the only black child there. Little Black Sambo made me. That white teacher made me. I felt abandoned. I didn’t even tell my parents. I couldn’t fight back. So when I read about these children—these children get treated like Ping-Pong balls! Then they get old enough and they get a gun, and suddenly everybody’s saying, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ ”
As Chambers spoke, Lavennia felt her face grow hot, and the rest of the room seemed to blur, then disappear; it was like Chambers was speaking to her, reprimanding her, accusing her. In the midst of it, a page knelt beside her in the aisle and whispered, “You’ll be next,” but the voice sounded far away to Lavennia; she heard her name crackle through a loudspeaker, and she found herself standing, dazed, floating toward the witness stand and sinking into a cushioned seat, blinded by the haze of television lights and the laser beam of Ernie Chambers’s glare.
She put her hands in her lap, then on the table, then back in her lap, fumbling through her purse for the statement she had prepared, unfolding it and leaning into the microphone. “My name is Lavennia Coover,” she began as flashes erupted around her. “My son Skyler was admitted to Immanuel hospital on September 24 through the safe-haven law.” As she spoke, she felt numb, as though she were listening from another room, listening to herself and to her own story, the most intimate and humiliating details of her life ricocheting off the stone walls. “While I was at the hospital,” she said, “I tried to let all the staff know why I was bringing my son. I told them I was unable to give him the help he needed. I stayed, even though the hospital staff kept telling me that I could leave.” She was crying now, but she kept on. “Around 11:45 that night, I gave Skyler a kiss and a hug, and I told him that I loved him, and I went home.” Her voice cracked and she stopped for a moment, then she straightened herself in her chair. “Many families and myself have received harsh criticism from Todd Landry. Landry states that we are taking advantage of the law. According to the court documents I received, I am being charged with neglect, due to the fact that I dropped off my child at Immanuel hospital. I am being prosecuted for invoking the law.”
When she finished, she looked up again and found Ernie Chambers’s eyes. There was a long silence as he studied her face. “I have a question,” he said finally. “Has anybody from the state told you what the treatment for your son will be?”
“Right now, he’s still in the hospital,” she said. “They are having a difficult time finding the proper level of treatment.”
“Do they tell you that you’re going to be removed from your child’s life?”
“Yes,” she said. “And I have a daughter who went through the proper process to get help, and all I got was criticism, as I’m getting now. I had a judge tell me I was a worthless parent.”
Chambers’s eyes darkened.
“Did the judge say that in court?” he asked.
“How long ago?”
“Probably four years.”
“If you can get a copy of that transcript, I wish you would share it with me.”
Lavennia nodded. “I will,” she said.
Chambers fell silent again. He looked like he wanted to say more but wasn’t sure what, and before he could find the words the chairman of the committee dismissed Lavennia. She stood and stepped from the witness stand, walking down the aisle and out, into the hallway, a battery of cameras flashing around her as she hurried toward the front exit.
“Ms. Coover,” a voice called from behind her. She turned and saw Chambers jogging to catch up. When he did, he smiled. “I hope you will send that transcript to me,” he said. There was still a strange look in his eyes, like he wanted to help but was unsure how. It didn’t make sense—of all the senators in that room, this was the man most opposed to the safe-haven law, most opposed to her decision, a man who, just minutes ago, had accused her of abandoning her son, of treating him like a Ping-Pong ball, and yet here he was…
“You said you’re being prosecuted?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I was just served papers.”
Chambers shook his head. “The county attorney told us that nobody is being prosecuted. Can you send me those papers as well?”
“Sure,” she said.
He paused, then nodded. “Thank you, Ms. Coover.” Chambers turned back toward the hearing room, and Lavennia watched him disappear; then she walked slowly toward the front door, stepping outside into the midday light. She felt an unfamiliar sensation in her chest, and she realized it was hope. If Ernie Chambers had listened, if Ernie Chambers was beginning to understand, if the most resolute opponent of safe havens had finally grasped that it wasn’t about safe havens, not anymore; that it wasn’t about newborns, or Dumpsters, or neglect, or abandonment; that it was about desperate families turning to the worst and only option they had left, their broken surrender manifest in this last unspeakable choice; if Ernie Chambers could grasp that now, and turn toward her, and want to help, then maybe there was a shard of hope that the rest of the senate would understand, too.
PRIVATELY, MANY OF Nebraska’s senators were considering the law for the first time. They had passed it quickly and carelessly in the spring, but now it seemed urgent to reconsider what it meant. Now the stakes were impossible to deny: Without meaning to, or knowing they would, they had opened the floodgates to families in crisis, families with nowhere else to turn. Whatever changes the senators made going forward, their first priority was to make sure those families continued getting help.
“We obviously need to deal with this problem of older kids,” Senator Arnie Stuthman, the author of the Nebraska safe-haven law, said in early November as the children poured in. “This isn’t what I intended, but these people are crying out.” The chairman of the state’s Health and Human Services Committee, Senator Joel Johnson, agreed. “This points out that there is a problem,” he said. “You hear a lot of comments saying how bad a decision it was to leave the age open, but this is filling a real need.” And the chairman of the state Judiciary Committee, Brad Ashford, went a step further. “It’s not the law’s fault,” he explained. “Nebraska is in the bottom nine states for health care eligibility for kids; we’re the bottom state for child-care subsidy, bottom 10 percent for school breakfast, highest rate of youth in custody. So if anything is a fiasco, that is.”
Yet when the governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, convened an emergency session of the legislature that month, he instructed state senators not to consider any of those issues. In a written proclamation, Heineman gave the legislature a narrow focus: They would convene for one week, insert an age limit, confine the law to infants only, and then close the session and head home for the winter break. Any effort to address the larger problems, to help the families who actually used the law—any effort to acknowledge the plight of mentally ill children or provide assistance to their desperate parents—was entirely off-limits. If the experiment in Nebraska had lifted a curtain on the suffering of families with sick kids, the governor’s solution—the only one he would consider—was to pull that curtain down again.
By the end of the week, the legislature had complied, caving in to the governor’s demand and limiting the law to infants only. Two months later, the senate reconvened for its 2009 session but moved on from safe havens to the most pressing issue in Nebraska: setting up new laptop computers—seventy sleek MacBook Airs, purchased at a cost of more than $100,000. A few of the members who supported the safe-haven law proposed new legislation to help mentally ill children. But so far, not one of those bills has come up for a vote.
Help was not on the way.
If the short-lived safe-haven law had promised one thing, it was that parents who used it could not be prosecuted for abandonment. But Lavennia Coover was prosecuted anyway. Two days after she dropped Skyler, she was indicted in Juvenile Court for neglect. How this can happen is murky at best; there is no particular nuance or clever rationale to explain how it is possible to convict someone for what is not a crime. But there it is. So it goes. This is the world Lavennia Coover inhabits.
Each morning she and Colby wake up early. Colby feeds the cats while Lavennia prepares breakfast; then they drive together to the reservation for school. She doesn’t know what Skyler is doing, or even how he’s doing. After nine weeks in the hospital, he moved into a foster home, last fall, but he’s hard to reach and rarely calls. By early this year, she had only seen him twice: once on Thanksgiving, for a few hours at the mall, and once on Christmas, at the foster agency. In February, after four months without him, Lavennia made another impossible choice: Against every instinct in her body, every principle and conviction, she stood up in court and admitted to the charges against her, admitted to something she did not think was wrong, admitted to put the issue behind her. She hopes that now she can see Skyler more often. Life is quieter without him at home, and maybe a little better, too. But on weekends and evenings, the emptiness sets in. She has trouble sleeping; for months, she cried herself through the night. Even now she lies in bed, wondering what she might have done differently. What she should have done. Maybe she was too stern, or not stern enough. Maybe there was some other way, and she didn’t see it. There must have been. There has to be. These are the questions she asks herself, sleepless in the little white house on the hill, overlooking the winter landscape of her life. A good mother. A loving mother. A hardworking, committed mother, fighting to build a life and a home, to raise three kids, work a full-time job. One bad break, and it crashes down. For Lavennia Coover, it was never about abandoning Skyler. It was never about wanting to walk away. Never about taking the easy way out. It was always about one thing: Getting help for her child. It’s about the little spare room in the back of her house, with an old computer and a modem screeching, with pages fluttering from the printer, and Lavennia hunched over the keyboard, pounding out letters—to senators, to the governor, and to her son, a son she could find no other way to help.
She was never able to save Natosha. Fourteen placements in three years, and today they rarely speak. To save Skyler, she tried something new. To save him, she gave up more than custody; she gave up the most fundamental thing of all: her pride. Her pride as a mother, as a provider; her joy in those precious moments, however scarce, when the family was one, and it worked. Gone now, gone forever. And the irony is, if you wanted one signal of a parent’s intentions, one clue of a mother whose commitment was total, it would be her willingness to sacrifice everything for her child—not only the child but the essence of herself. It would be the mother willing to die for her children, to die inside. And Lavennia Coover is dying.