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Nebraska legislators to address safe-haven law gone awry

October 30, 2008|Associated Press

LINCOLN, NEB. — Deciding he could wait no longer, Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday that he would call a special legislative session to alter a safe-haven law that 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 in January but changed his mind as the number of dropped-off children grew. Two teenagers were abandoned Tuesday night alone, and three children dropped off earlier did not even live in Nebraska.

"We've had five in the last eight days," Heineman said. "We all hoped this wouldn't happen."

The special session will begin Nov. 14 -- less than two months before the regular legislative session.

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

The law, which took effect in July, prohibits parents from being prosecuted for leaving a child at a hospital. Nebraska was the last state to approve such a law.

Use of the word "child" was a compromise after legislators disagreed about what age limit to set, but that decision made Nebraska's law the broadest in the nation. 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 none are babies.

Most Nebraska lawmakers have agreed on revisions that would limit the law to newborns no older than 3 days.

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman, the bill's sponsor, had wanted a 3-day age limit 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.

None of the dropped-off children had been in immediate danger, said Todd Landry, director of the state's Children and Family Services division.

Tim Jaccard, president of the National Safe Haven Alliance, said age limits in safe-haven laws vary greatly. Aside from Nebraska's law, North Dakota's is the broadest, allowing children up to 1 year old to be abandoned.

"It's kind of a strange thing," said Jaccard, a police officer in New York's Nassau County. "If you were born in New York, you have five days. If you walk across the street [to Connecticut], you've got 30 days."

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