Denver Post

al knight

Buster's best interest

By Al Knight
Denver Post Columnist Mar. 18, 2001

The abandonment of a newborn infant in the alley behind the Grand China Restaurant at East Colfax Avenue and Gaylord Street on March 8 has raised a whole series of questions about how such acts are to be treated, both under criminal and civil law.

For reasons that are far from clear, the 23-year-old mother of the child, Lisa Levatino, has from the beginning been treated more like a victim than an offender. It is said, for example, that she was under stress, that she is remorseful, that she is confused and upset and that she wants her child returned.

It is difficult - no, make that impossible - to believe that had it been the father of the child who left it in an alley there would be much less attention on his state of mind, his stress level or whether he has experienced remorse. It is much more likely that emphasis would be given to the cold weather conditions, the lack of concern about the child's welfare and the callousness of the act.

Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter has charged Levatino with misdemeanor child abuse. He has said that no felony charge was possible because the child wasn't harmed. Ritter called Levatino's actions "drastic and really inappropriate," a characterization that some find too forgiving.

Levatino, one supposes, had nine months to consider what she would do with the baby, nicknamed "Buster" by a hospital nurse, so it isn't particularly helpful now to read and hear speculations about how the birth may have caught her in a stressful moment.

A number of news stories have implied the state has limited choices in what it might do, the main one being reuniting the child with the mother. There is, in fact, a wide range of possibilities. In making the final choice of a custodian, the Department of Human Services is required to consider the interests of the baby, the father, the grandparents and perhaps other interested parties as well.

Within days of the baby being found, the department filed a dependency and neglect action against both the mother and the father. This filing starts the clock running on a 12-month process, during which time the department will have to consider where to place the child permanently.

Donna Good, deputy senior manager of the Denver Department of Human Services, said on Thursday that she has heard from Levatino's mother and that she wishes to be involved in the resolution of this case. Good said she also had received two phone calls from the father, but had yet to speak with him.

These expressions of interest must be viewed as a good thing in that they offer the possibility of wider choices for the department and ultimately for Buster.

As for the criminal charges, Levatino appears to have had some very good luck. She told police she left the child in the alley knowing it was a well-traveled area. It doesn't take too much imagination, however, to think of a number of ways that things could have turned out badly.

The public shouldn't be thought of as uninvolved spectators to the outcome. The legislature has written a law that will be used to determine the final disposition of this case. While the law on dependency and neglect clearly anticipates that, where possible, families should be reunited, it does so only to the extent that such reunification is in the child's interest.

The public simply doesn't yet know enough about the circumstances of the abandonment to make sensible judgments about the fitness of the mother and, therefore, Good is really not in a position to be offering reassuring explanations for Levatino's conduct.

Contrary to the impression given by some news accounts, there may well be better choices than returning the child to the mother, who apparently was so stressed that she could not take her newborn to a safe place such as a police department. Now, the public is being led to believe that all the mother needs is classes. However, court-sponsored stress-management courses or parenting classes have a limited use in overcoming manifest parental deficiencies. In any event, the department of social services ought to learn a lot more about this matter before considering giving this baby back to the mother charged with abusing him.

Al Knight is a Denver Post columnist and editorial writer. E-mail Al about this column.

Copyright 2001 The Denver Post.