Neb. governor accelerates fix of safe-haven law

By: AP
By: AP

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Deciding he could wait no longer to address what has become a state embarrassment, Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday he will call a special legislative session to amend Nebraska's loosely worded safe-haven law, which in just a few months has allowed parents to abandon nearly two dozen children as old as 17.

Heineman had planned to wait until the next regular legislative session convened in January, but changed his mind as the number of children dropped off at hospitals grew. Two teenagers were abandoned Tuesday night alone, and three children dropped off previously did not even live in Nebraska.

"We've had five in the last eight days," Heineman said in explaining why he called a special session. "We all hoped this wouldn't happen."

The special session will begin Nov. 14. That's less than two months before the regular legislative session, but the governor and others see a need to act quickly.

"This law needs to be changed to reflect its original intent" to protect infants, Heineman said during a news conference Wednesday.

The law, which was signed by Heineman in February and took effect in July, prohibits parents from being prosecuted for leaving a child at a hospital.

Use of the word "child" was a compromise after legislators disagreed about what age limit to set, but that decision made Nebraska's safe-haven law the broadest in the nation by far. Most states have age limits ranging from 3 days to about a month.

As of Wednesday 23 children had been left at Nebraska hospitals, including nine from one family and children from Iowa, Michigan and Georgia. Many are teenagers, only one is younger than 6 and and none are babies.

Most Nebraska lawmakers have agreed upon revisions that would put an age limit of 3 days on infants who could be dropped off at hospitals.

Veteran legislator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who opposes safe-haven laws and is skilled at killing laws he doesn't like, said Wednesday that he will not obstruct passage of the revision.

"It is terrible for children at those ages that are being dropped off to be deserted and abandoned," he said. "I think the governor has made a very wise decision."

Not everyone agrees, including the current law's main sponsor. Sen. Arnie Stuthman of Platte Center had wanted a 3-day age limit in his bill but opposes a rush to change the law.

"The big problem is we need to address what there seems to be a need for," Stuthman said. "It seems like people aren't able to get services for these older kids."

Heineman suggested the drop-offs illustrate that parents aren't aware of services, not that the safety net already in place is insufficient. "I believe there are services out there some parents aren't aware of," he said.

A 17-year-old Lincoln boy was left at a Lincoln hospital Tuesday night. State officials said the boy's stepfather and mother took him to BryanLGH Medical Center West and that the boy was in an emergency shelter.

According to Lincoln police Capt. Jim Thoms, the parents told officers the boy wouldn't follow the parents' rules and that they couldn't afford some programs he needed.

In a statement Wednesday issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, Children and Family Services division director Todd Landry confirmed the boy was the 23rd left at a Nebraska hospital.

Also Tuesday night, a 15-year-old girl from Douglas County was abandoned by her father at an Omaha hospital. Landry said the girl is now in a foster home. And on Monday evening, a 15-year-old girl from Douglas County was left at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. She has been placed in a residential shelter while authorities continue to investigate her situation, Landry said.

The children brought in from Iowa and Nebraska were returned to their home states, and Georgia child-welfare authorities were returning the child from that state Wednesday.

None of the children dropped off was in immediate danger, Landry said Wednesday. He urged parents having trouble with their children to seek help from family, friends, neighbors and churches and, if need be, social services.

Associated Press writer Nelson Lampe in Omaha contributed to this report.

On the Net:
DHHS' safe-haven page: http://www.hhs.state.ne.us/Children-Family-Services/SafeHaven

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