When parents betray children

June 22, 1995

One of our colleagues, in a recent column on adoption, wrote that if couples considering making a baby had to endure the same battery of tests and background checks required of adoptive parents the world would be a better place. The suggestion might have struck some as tongue-in-cheek, yet current events force one to contemplate its merits.

In Western Maryland, the Washington County sheriff's department says that a Hagerstown area couple whose 3-year-old son was discovered alone in a California mall this month told friends they intended to abandon him. Lisa and Wolfgang Von Nester Sr. "said their intention was to leave the child out there," investigator Rick Ziolkowski said.

Fortunately, Wolfgang Von Nester Jr. -- the father apparently cared enough to give the boy his name -- was rescued, albeit dirty, at a mall in San Bernardino County, unharmed. At least it can be said the boy is doing better than the sons of Susan Smith, who were drowned while strapped in their car seats last fall. Or Christina Holt, the 7-year-old who was raised in Montgomery County and beaten to death last fall by her stepfather while her mother looked on indifferently. Or the two toddlers who suffocated in a hot car for 10 hours while their young mom partied in a hotel.

Christina Holt's mother, who received a life sentence for her murder, has two other young sons. She bore another infant last year, but gave him up for adoption because, she told friends, she couldn't afford him. In a similar vein, Lisa Nester has four children besides Wolfgang Jr. Her parents, John and Margie Savage of Boonsboro, are raising them. "I'm scared to death to let any of the children out of the house without one of us watching," Mrs. Savage told the Associated Press. "I don't know what [my daughter's] intentions are."

Newt Gingrich tried clumsily to tether the Smith horror to the Democrats last fall, but these human tragedies know no ideological or racial bounds. Marion Barry made a splash years ago when he chided an overextended, poor woman: "Why don't you stop having babies." At the other end of the spectrum, Ronald Reagan made an anecdotal welfare queen the poster child for benevolent government gone wrong.

Economic dislocation is often blamed for such parental dysfunction, but that excuse won't wash. Poor people raise stable families, often more stable than those with money. The roots of a situation that leads adults to abandon a toddler in a mall, or drown babies in a lake, are complex. The rest of us, who have or who know people whose children mean the world to them, can only gape at this, as if looking down from the rim of the Grand Canyon and wondering how anyone could fall that far.

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