LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska on Friday closed a loophole in a controversial law that had allowed parents to abandon their children at hospitals.
The unicameral Legislature voted 43-5 to make abandonment legal only for infants up to 30 days old. Gov. Dave Heineman signed the emergency bill, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Since the state’s safe-haven law went into effect in September, 35 children have been left at state 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 youths. Legislators have vowed to address that shortage during their regular session in January 2009, 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 in the nation 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 years of age to be left without criminal liability. One Omaha woman, the legal guardian of her 13-year-old schizophrenic 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 in October, Heineman called for a special session solely to drop the age limit on the safe-haven law. The session ran this entire week. Lawmakers said that after revising the law, they hope to provide help for families forced to use the statute.