There ought to be a law…

…and now there is.

The State of Tennessee just passed a law making it a felony to knowingly abandon a person with an intellectual disability. Amid some fanfare, Gov. Jim Haslam signed “Lynn’s Law” into effect at city hall in Caryville, scene of an incident last year that led to the law.

Last summer, Lynn Cameron, a 19-year-old woman with an intellectual disability, was abandoned by her mother at a tavern in Caryville. The mother, Eva Cameron, said she was no longer able to care for her daughter because she had another child with special needs.

The Camerons are from Algonquin, Illinois, and Mrs. Cameron said she had been trying unsuccessfully for years to place her daughter in a group home.  She heard from a friend at church that Tennessee had better services for people with disabilities.

Don’t believe everything you hear

So she drove her daughter to Tennessee and planned to drop her off at a church, but instead left her at a bar in Caryville.  Mrs. Cameron had been misinformed about Tennessee, which has 7,000 people on waiting lists for state disability services.

Inadvertently, Mrs. Cameron had accomplished what needed to be done to get her daughter the care she needs. Tennessee refused to keep Lynn and a judge ordered that she be returned to Illinois, where officials decided she was in a state of crisis and was eligible for placement in a residential facility.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Cameron’s actions drew widespread publicity and condemnation. How could a mother abandon her disabled child in that way? Lynn apparently was left with no identification and no money. She had a vocabulary of no more than 40 words.

News of her plight made headlines nationwide. Authorities in Tennessee tried to arrest her mother but found there was no law against what she did. Abandoning an adult, regardless of his or her mental capacity, was not against the law. And so now we have Lynn’s Law.

Can’t see the forest for the trees

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but this doesn’t solve the problem. Punishing a parent for giving up on a disabled child does not resolve the underlying issue. And that issue is that there aren’t enough services available for people like Lynn. If there were, we wouldn’t have mothers like Eva Cameron doing something the rest of us find unthinkable.

As she told the Chicago Tribune, she knows people don’t understand. But she couldn’t cope any longer with Lynn’s disabilities, escalating behavior problems and medical bills. And she’s not alone. There are 10,000 to 20,000 other parents in her same shoes in Illinois, where budget cutbacks have resulted in curtailed services for people with disabilities.

The Camerons’ story, or some version of it, has been repeated countless times throughout history. In ancient times, children who had disabilities were often abandoned in the woods and left to die.

In my family, my uncle Melrose, like so many others in the 20th century, were sent to live in isolated institutions because there was no other help for their families.

Surely we can do better than this for our most vulnerable citizens. Surely.