Nebraska safe haven law draws criticism

October 9, 2008 emergency shelter in Omaha. "The message they take away is that they're not worth caring for. That in turn has a life-long impact on their ability to trust others and form relationships."

Children's rights advocates and state officials, including one-time supporters of the law, called the abandonments a misuse of a measure designed in most cases to protect infants.

"Safe haven legislation is designed to prevent infants from being left outside or left unattended," said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heinman. "Safe haven laws were not designed to allow families having difficulty with older youth and teenagers to abandon their children or responsibilities as parents."

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman, co-author of the bill, originally wanted it to apply only to infants but agreed to expand it to apply to all children. "This has exploded in our face," he said.

Legislators have vowed to change the laws, though not everyone agrees that it should be limited to infants and it's not clear when changes would be made. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for next month, and it's possible no changes will be made until the next legislative session in January.

Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said the law should continue to apply to all children.

"I don't think the law is causing problems -- the problem is out there," he said. "The law is in fact just highlighting what is out there. These family issues need to be addressed."

The abandonments, which began last month, have focused attention on what advocates say is lack of resources for beleaguered parents. In many cases, parents who have abandoned their children in recent months told authorities that the kids were out of control or suffered from mental health issues.

Gary Staton left nine of his 10 children, ages 1 to 17, at a hospital last month. Staton told Omaha TV station KETV that after his wife died early last year and he lost his job, "I didn't think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn't take care of them."

"I was able to get the kids to a safe place before they were homeless," he said. "I hope they know I love them. I hope their future is better without me around them."

In the latest case, a 14-year-old girl from Iowa was abandoned by her grandmother at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha, the first time a child from out of state has been abandoned under Nebraska's law.

Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Health Services, said Iowa officials planned to speak to the grandmother and that the girl could be placed in foster care in Nebraska or sent back to her family in Iowa.

"Throwing up your hands and giving up on your child and taking them to Nebraska is not the way to handle a troubled teenager," he said.

Though the law immunizes parents from prosecution in Nebraska, Todd Landry, director of the Division of Children and Family Services for the Department of Health and Human Services, suggested that the woman could be prosecuted in Iowa, which allows parents to give up children under its safe haven law until they are two weeks old.

"Clearly this law had had unintended consequences. I think at this point it is very clear that Nebraska needs to provide a vehicle to help parents of challenged children," said Kathy Moore, director of Voices for Children, a child advocacy group. "Parents need to be able to come forward and say they need therapy, they need residential treatment" for their children.

Karen Authier, director of Nebraska Children's Center, a foster care agency, agreed there is a lack of mental health services for parents. "What this law has brought to the forefront is that there are families who are desperate enough that they want to give up their parenting role. The state needs to address that," she said. "They've opened Pandora's box."

She said that most of the older children who have been abandoned have had serious behavior problems.

Their reactions to abandonment "can range from anything from anger to guilt to sadness," she said. "The important thing is to talk them through those feelings and help prepare them from whatever the next steps are going to be."

Landry denied that there were not enough services, saying that none of the parents who abandoned their children did so because they were unable to pay for services.

He said the safe haven law should be changed. "It needs to get back to the original intent of the safe haven law," he said. "And that is a protection device for infants who are in immediate danger of being harmed."

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