Neb. governor accelerates fix of safe-haven law

LINCOLN, Neb., USA 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. 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 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 none are babies.

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

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.

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

Landry urged parents having trouble with their children to seek help from family, friends, neighbors and churches and, if need be, social services.

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."

Jaccard hopes to bring all 50 states to an agreement, possibly with federal legislation. Most of the type of abandonments that safe-haven laws are meant to prevent happen in the first 24 hours after birth, he said.

Jaccard started the safe-haven movement in 1998, after finding a baby drowned in a toilet bowl by his mother, and others in plastic bags, buried or in recycling bins.

"The bottom line is," he said, "I don't want to see another baby in a Dumpster ever again."


Associated Press Writers Anna Jo Bratton and Nelson Lampe in Omaha contributed to this report.


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