Nebraska Officials Seek to Change 'Safe Haven' Law
On Monday, Oct. 20, officials in Nebraska declared that they would revise the state’s controversial “safe haven” law when the legislature reconvenes in January. Gov. Dave Heineman said, “This law has had serious, unintended consequences,” and State Sen. Mike Flood, the speaker of the legislature, indicated that at least 40 of the 49 legislators were prepared to change the wording of the law, according to The New York Times.
Nebraska’s version of the law says that the state would protect any “child” left by his or her guardians, leaving out the age limit requirement that other states mandate. Officials in Nebraska say they will make the revised law only apply to newborns up to three days old.
The governor said he could call a special session of the legislature if more incidents were to occur before next year, but he said, “I’d prefer not to do that, given how close we are to January.”
The Omaha World-Herald reports that the new state law, which has resulted in the abandonment of several children and teens, has created a rift between parents and social services.
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.
One man whose friend abandoned an 11-year-old said the law’s effects were a “wake up call” that something needs to be done, but “State social services officials disagree, saying parents and guardians need to step up and stand behind their children. But frustrated families and child advocates say they can’t find help. Three parents or guardians said professionals in the system informed them about the law,” the World-Herald Reported.
State health and human service officials told the newspaper that “the cases raise no concerns about problems within the system.” However, Nebraska’s child care assistance and health care coverage for the children of working families rank among the worst in the country, according to Kathy Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska.
Safe haven laws exist generally to provide parents with an alternative to aborting, or harmfully discarding children.
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 safe haven law means a parent won’t be charged for abandonment, but abuse charges could still be filed if there is evidence to support them, Landry said.
When the first children were dropped off under the new law, a state senator who advocated for the law, Rich Pahls, had this reaction to the situation: “It tells me that there are some parents or guardians out there that need some help. If you look at the larger picture we need to take a look at mental health.”
Earlier in September, Pahls and another senator said if more adolescents and older children are affected, they’ll try to alter the law so it applies only to infants.
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.”