The Shopping Bag Baby And Why We Need Alternatives To Simply Removing Children From Their Drug-Addicted Parents

March 12, 2015  |  

Glendale Police

Desperation breeds stupidity. The same could be said for love.

What I’m referring is the story out of Arizona of a father who attempted to snatch his own newborn child out of a Glendale hospital in a shopping bag.

According to FOX 11 in Phoenix, new footage has been released showing 33-year-old Jason Bristol walking through the corridors of the maternity ward, attempting to walk out while allegedly carrying his newborn baby girl inside a plastic shopping bag.

As the report notes:

Hospital staffers came to see what is going on and told the suspect to leave through the main exit, not the fire exit.

At that point, it appears none of them were aware of what police say he was carrying in that plastic bag.

Glendale Police say 33-year-old Jason Bristol’s baby was born at a home in Youngtown, then taken to the hospital. The baby had meth, marijuana, and morphine in her blood stream.

The police report says that Bristol wrapped the baby in blankets and put her in the plastic bag because he and the mom, “knew the child was going to be removed from them, so he wanted to get out of the hospital.

Thankfully, the baby was recovered unharmed. And Bristol, who was found with a small amount of meth on him, is looking at a child abuse charge. Another report says that the mother, 30-year-old Diana McKinney, will also face child abuse and drug possession charges. They’re very fortunate to be white or else they might’ve been charged with abduction and a slew of other trumped up charges.

Racial issues (always) aside, it’s going to be hard for people to empathize with these parents considering that we are talking about at least one adult here with drug dependency issues. How can a person be loving and caring to another human being, especially to a child, if they’re also in love with the coco – or whatever they were addicted to?

Well, the same way folks can be addicted to a bunch of other unhealthy and irresponsible behaviors and still love their children. Folks got issues. But folks are also capable of having complex emotions and objectives too – like having a substance abuse issue while still trying to be a responsible parent.

As noted by Columbia University professor and researcher Dr. Carl Hart in a 2013 article in the New York Times, public perception paints drug addicts as people who will do anything for an immediate high. However, in several experiments he did where he provided drug addicts with the option of taking a hit of crack-cocaine or meth several times a day, or instead, receiving cash, Dr. Hart found that the addicts’ choices were dependent upon how much was offered (the higher the cash amount compared to the crack dosage, the more likely an addict would opt for the money).

As Dr. Hart concluded, when given an alternative to crack or meth, addicts “made rational economic decisions.” Likewise, the drugs themselves matter less to a person’s decision-making abilities than the actual environment and circumstances in which they find themselves. As Dr. Hart noted in the New York Times report:

Crack and meth may be especially troublesome in some poor neighborhoods and rural areas, but not because the drugs themselves are so potent.

If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.

“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

Enriching a person’s environment will make those with substance abuse issues less likely to use mood-altering drugs. Imagine that. And yet, nobody can imagine that because that is not how our system tends to treat addicts. And that likely includes the father of this newborn, who when faced with the possibility of having his kid taken away from him, did something extremely desperate.

And some may argue that his actions were not only desperate, but stupid, and certainly not representative of someone calling themselves a responsible parent. However, there might be logical rationale behind going to great measures to keep one’s child out of the system: According to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children in foster care between 2002 and 2012 has declined by almost 24 percent nationwide, from 523,616 to 399,546. Yet as this article on The Fix notes, while national stats are down, Arizona’s number of children entering foster care from 2007 to 2012 has actually skyrocketed by as much as 48 percent. Likewise, out of the 10,141 children removed from their birth home in Arizona in 2012, 59 percent were taken because of their parent’s substance abuse problem.

According to this article from the Arizona Daily Star, the increase in CPS removals has spawned a federal lawsuit filed by New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest earlier last month. It was filed on behalf of 10 Arizona foster children (with intentions of reaching class action status to represent the nearly 17,000 children currently in Arizona’s foster care system). In particular, the lawsuit alleges that the Arizona Department of Child Safety as well as the Department of Health’s poor treatment of foster children puts them at risk of great harm.

As Tucson’s Daily Star reports: 

The suit also accuses the state of a “widespread failure to engage in basic child welfare practices aimed at maintaining family relationships.” That includes placing siblings together, trial reunifications with parents, adequate visitation between children and biological families, and having caseworkers visit parents to work toward reunification.

If you are wondering if the suit has merit, consider that Child Protective Services’ record was so dismal and troublesome that in 2014, Gov. Jan Brewer abolished the state’s CPS agency altogether and replaced it with “Child Safety and Family Services.”

The point here is that when dealing with questions about the welfare of a child – and at that moment, I feel that having drugs in one’s system is a question and not necessarily an indictment of a parent’s ability to parent – intervention is key. However, the preemptive decision to simply take children from parents doesn’t always act in their best interest. And maybe that was at the back of Bristol’s mind when he decided to try to walk his baby out of the hospital in a plastic bag. He was stupid, but his stupid act was based on logical, and more than likely, loving motives in response to an often illogical and indifferent system that does more taking than helping.

I am in no way trying to excuse Bristol’s actions. And in all honestly, I’m not quite sure how far he would have gone in order to protect himself. However, I also recognize how bad policies can push people and exasperate already desperate situations. And if the concern is truly about the welfare of the children, we have to wonder if this tactic of removing kids from their birth parents because of dependency issues alone (and having people live in fear of that) is the best way to actually support and keep families together.

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