Nebraska Safe-Haven Law Has Unintended Effects

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OMAHA, Neb. — More than a dozen children have been abandoned under Nebraska’s unique safe-haven law, which allows children as old as 18 to be abandoned without fear of prosecution. But the case of a 14-year-old girl from Iowa has stoked fears of an influx of unwanted out-of-state children.

The law, which took effect in July, permits caregivers to leave children at hospitals. Like similar laws in other states, it was intended to protect infants. But the Nebraska law was written to include the word child, without setting an age limit.

Some have taken the word child in the law to mean minor, which in Nebraska includes anyone younger than 19. Others have taken the common-law definition, which includes those younger than 14.

And the law doesn’t preclude people from out of state from abandoning their children in Nebraska, which leaves some uncertainty about its current reach.

So far, 17 children have been abandoned under the safe-haven law, including nine from one family. A 14-year-old girl from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was left at a hospital across the Missouri River in Omaha late Tuesday.

Nebraska lawmakers aren’t scheduled to convene again until January, but they are already re-examining the law they passed in the spring.

Gov. Dave Heineman has not ruled out calling a rare special session of the Legislature to fix the law.