Nebraska Lowers Eligible Age for Safe Haven Law
Neb. Gov. Dave Heineman has vowed to sign the new version into law.
The original version of the law, which was created to give desperate parents a safe option for children they could not care for, has allowed drop-offs from around the country, including teens as old as 17. Because lawmakers could not agree on an appropriate cut-off age, the law simply said that parents can drop off their “children” without fear of prosecution.
More than half of the children legally abandoned under the Nebraska law were teenagers, five of whom were driven in from out of state by desperate parents. In October, a woman drove from Georgia to leave her 12-year-old son at a hospital in Lincoln.
But Nebraska officials voiced concern that state resources could not handle the possible influx of children, and resolved to make the law more limiting. “What you’ve seen is an extraordinary cry for help from people all across the country,” State Sen. Tom White told CNN. “Nebraska can’t afford to take care of all of them. Nebraska would like to be able to, but they know that we can’t so we are going to have to change the law.”
Many parents, aware that the law was soon likely to change, strove to take advantage of the looser restrictions by hastening to abandon their teens in the past few weeks.
“Where am I going to get help if they change the law?” said one mother from Lincoln, Neb., who abandoned her 18-year-old daughter at a “safe haven” earlier this month.
As of Nov. 21, 35 children, 29 of them older than 10 years old, have been abandoned in Nebraska since the Safe Haven law took effect.
Gov. Heineman said, “This law has had serious, unintended consequences,” and state Sen. Mike Flood, the speaker of the legislature, indicated that at as of Oct. 21, at least 40 of the 49 legislators were prepared to change the wording of the law, according to The New York Times.
Of those abandoned, seven have diagnosed or suspected behavioral problems or mental illness, the paper reported. In one case, a father abandoned nine of his children after he was unable to care for them following his wife’s death last year.
Safe haven laws exist generally to provide parents with an alternative to aborting, or harmfully discarding children. Nebraska's is unlike any other states in that children up the the age of 18 can be legally left at hospitals.
According to the North Platte Bulletin, leaving a child at a hospital under the safe haven law doesn’t mean a parent can abandon all rights.
“There seems to be a misconception that when a child is dropped off at a hospital, the parents are absolved of responsibility. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Todd Landry, director of the state’s Division of Child and Family Services, in an interview with the Bulletin. “I am very concerned about the situations we’ve seen so far. I empathize with parents who aren’t sure where to turn, but I want to encourage those families to use other options before taking the drastic step of abandoning a child.”
The law means that a parent won’t be charged for abandonment, but abuse charges could still be filed if there is evidence to support them, Landry said.
A blogger called Marley Greiner wrote, “The casualties pile up in Nebraska,” on the site The Daily Bastardette. “While Nebraska’s children are ‘legally’ dumped by their parents at an alarming rate under this Draconian law, state legislators sit on their thumbs discounting and ignoring the damage to Nebraska children, families, and communities,” Greiner wrote.
Lauren Kniesly, who writes the blog Baby Love Child, said, “what I do know is that kids, particularly minors are going to internalize this and live with the Nebraska’s legislators’ social experimentation for the rest of their lives.”
“Child abandonment is evidence of a severely broken system. Passing the hard effects of that down to children, those least able to cope with such is nothing less than a cowardly shirking of duty,” Kniesly said.
Others had criticized the law before it took effect. At the blog Bad Breeders, Trench Reynolds said the Nebraska law was the “most vague” of the widely varying state laws. “There needs to be a federally uniform safe haven law since the states can’t seem to get it together and for the most part have not prevented baby dumpings,” Reynolds wrote.
A group called Bastard Nation argues that safe haven laws, while trying to protect babies from being abandoned and possibly killed, “strip the infant of all genetic, medical and social history.” That’s just one problem the group cites with safe haven laws, which they say are unnecessary. Bastard Nation is an “organization dedicated to the equal treatment and dignity of all adopted citizens.”