On parental legacy: Where did we go wrong?

On parental legacy: Where did we go wrong?

April 29th, 2014 in Opinion Times

We've all heard the old saying: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

It refers to the continuity of family characteristics. Kids are like their parents.

On Sunday, a Times Free Press story by reporter Beth Burger headlined "Sins of the Father" offered a heart-rending report of the impact a father's imprisonment can have on a youngster.

And on Monday, a Times Free Press story by reporter Kate Harrison outlined a debate over a Tennessee bill that would criminalize drug-addicted mothers who give birth to drug-addicted babies. The bill awaits the governor's signature.

Such family legacies are not just a burden within the family. Another saying puts it this way: It takes a village to raise a child.

Sometimes it takes a nation. Or at least a nation of taxpayers.

The "Sins of the Fathers" story was about one child whose father, already a felon, is facing new charges and a possible sentence of 20 years to life. He was among 32 men charged in November in a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation. The father went to jail on earlier charges before the boy was born and didn't get out of prison until the child was 8.

In the newest drug cases, the 32 men indicted are now leaving at least 39 children living without fathers present. Collectively, the men are expected to pay $60,576 in child support each year. The month they were picked up, as a group they already were late in paying $20,609. The amount grows each month they are incarcerated.

As for the problem of drug-addicted newborns, the numbers are even more startling.

Tennessee alone last year reported 921 babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or drug addiction. In the first quarter of this year, another 253 drug-addicted newborns were delivered. The average TennCare cost for a healthy newborn is $4,237. The average cost for an infant born dependent on drugs and diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome is nearly 16 times higher -- $66,973. Yearly, the drug-addicted newborns cost more than $61 million.

Supporters of the bill that would allow their mothers to be charged criminally say strong punishment will deter drug use during pregnancy. But medical groups such as the National Perinatal Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Civil Liberties Union, say "drug enforcement policies that deter women from seeking prenatal care are contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus."

To borrow from yet another idiom, criminal charges in both of these stories are like closing the barn doors after the horses are out and the barn has burned to the ground. And no, this didn't happen because God was taken out of anything. He wasn't.

Families need (and have always needed) help long before babies are born -- or even conceived.

Instead of trying to fix our failings generations down the road, perhaps we should re-examine our resistance -- and funding cuts -- to Head Start programs and other preschool learning programs.

Perhaps we should stop fighting Planned Parenthood and other efforts that try to make birth control and even abortion easier to obtain.

Perhaps we should re-emphasize social programs that offer mentoring for young men and women and school programs that help students solve their behavior problems instead of slamming them with "zero-tolerance" life sentences.

When kids fall from a troubled tree, it's up to us to tend their bruises.

But then we should turn our attention to the tree, and try to address its troubles at the roots.