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State Revamps Haven Law

Nebraska lawmakers make abandonment legal only for infants up to 30 days old.

November 22, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Riccardi is a Times staff writer.

LINCOLN, NEB. — Nebraska on Friday closed a loophole in a controversial law that had allowed parents to abandon children as old as 18 at hospitals.

The unicameral Legislature voted 43 to 5 to make abandonment legal only for infants up to 30 days old. Gov. Dave Heineman signed the emergency bill Friday afternoon, and it takes effect today.

Since the state's safe-haven law went into effect in September, 35 children have been left at hospitals. Most of the youths were 11 or older, and many have severe behavioral problems.

"I'm glad it's over," said Mike Flood, speaker of the Legislature. "There were serious unintended consequences from the law."

The avalanche of abandoned children also revealed inadequate services for families struggling to raise troubled youth. Legislators have vowed to address that shortage in their regular session in January, despite a mounting state budget deficit.

Parents who had used the law and children's-rights groups begged the Legislature not to lower the age limit, saying the safe-haven statute was the only resource for desperate families. State Sen. Annette Dubas, one of the few to vote against the revised law, said those pleas touched her.

"I just couldn't in good conscience vote to support this bill, knowing it was going to close the door on getting services for older children," Dubas said. "This law may not have been the best way to handle it, but it provided options for them."

In February, Nebraska became the last state to pass a safe-haven law, designed to encourage young mothers to leave unwanted children at hospitals, rather than deposit them in dumpsters or worse.

But Nebraska allowed any minor up to 18 to be left without criminal liability. One Omaha woman, the legal guardian of her schizophrenic, 13-year-old great-niece, abandoned the girl after she tried to jump from a moving car. A mother in Pender, Neb., left her 11-year-old son at an Omaha hospital after the boy stopped taking his medications and threatened to kill her and his siblings. An Omaha man left nine of his 10 children after his wife died.

At least five parents came from other states -- as far as Arizona and Washington -- to abandon their children. Calls grew for a special session to revise the law.

"It's a traumatic experience that can scar a kid for life," said state Sen. Ernie Chambers, the first to push for a special session. "These children who are being dropped off are old enough to understand what's happening to them."

Late last month, Heineman, a Republican, called for a special session solely to revise the safe-haven law. The session ran this week. Lawmakers said now that they have revised the law, they hope to turn their attention to providing help for families pushed to use the statute.

"There's a lot of work to do now," said state Sen. Arnie Stuthman. "It's just the beginning of a big job."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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