Safe Haven Laws and Child Abandonment

Your morning started with the usual routine: shaking your children out of bed, getting ready for work, going back into your kids’ rooms to get them up again, fixing breakfast, settling yet another bathroom dispute, packing brown-bag lunches for your youngsters, convincing your son he is not sick and can go to school today, putting up your daughter’s hair and whisking them off to school. After a long day of rushing around the office, you hop in your car, only to realize the hard part of the day is not over.

You still have to get three kids to soccer practice, piano lessons, a student council fundraiser, a volleyball game and tutoring. Meanwhile, there is a message on your cell phone from a teacher requesting a meeting about your son’s grades, you daughter has to go to the mall to get new jeans, you have to punish the youngest two for getting into a fight on the playground, and although you haven’t thought about what’s for dinner, four kids are already whining about the potentials.

Raising children is by no means a walk in the park, but would you ever reach the point where you would just drop them off at a hospital and drive away? Since Nebraska enacted its new “safe haven” law, which prevents parents or guardians from being prosecuted if a child is abandoned in a safe place, 16 children have been left to state custody in 11 days.

The Open-Ended Interpretation of the Safe Haven Law

Nebraska state senators passed the state’s version of a safe haven law in February 2008, making Nebraska the last state to pass this type of legislation. The Lincoln Journal Star reported that the law was one of the broadest laws on the subject, allowing a parent or guardian to abandon a child, no matter how old they are.

The open-ended law which simply stated that any child could be left with a hospital employee without risk of prosecution for abandonment took effect in July. Under Nebraska law, a child is considered anyone younger than 18 or 19, whereas most states limit their safe haven laws to infants aged 72 hours to 30 days.

The law also leaves it up to the hospitals to contact the proper authorities. The police department, juvenile courts and foster care system are responsible for compiling details of what happens after the child is abandoned, depending on the interpretation of the law.

State Struggling to Respond to Rash Abandonments

In one night alone, 11 children were left at hospitals, making the total of children relinquished to state custody to 16 in 11 days. In the most recent case, a father dropped off his nine children, aged one to 17, on September 24. Two other caretakers left teenage boys with Omaha hospitals on the same night.

State officials fear that the abandonment is happening because parents are frustrated with their children’s behavioral problems and are taking advantage of the loose interpretation of the state’s safe haven law. The law is suppose to provide protection to children in danger, but is being used by parents who decided to give up dealing with their teenagers.

Other cases have been reported in September, some driving in from out of state, including the abandonment of a 15 year-old boy on September 13 by his aunt, who could not handle his behavioral problems. The boy’s mother had died five years ago, and his four other siblings had already been sent to foster homes. Shortly, after that incident, a mother dropped off her 14 year-old son at a police station because he beat up his 13 year-old brother. The mother was fined because only hospitals are considered safe havens.

Legislators are working to revise the law, which was in response to cases of dead infants being found in garbage cans, cars or other dangerous places. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman has called for the law to be changed, but the state legislature does not assemble again until January. If the revisions are passed, they will hopefully prevent older children from being abandoned.

Parents Have Other Options

Teenagers’ behaviors can wear a parent or guardian thin, but Nebraska officials are urging people to consider options, including nonprofit human services from public school and state agencies to help instead of abandoning them at a hospital.

However, what happens when families reach out for help and don’t get a response? Kathy Bigsby Moore from Voices for Children Nebraska told the Lincoln Journal Star that the state does not have a stable system to help families with their children’s behavioral problems. This, she said, has been demonstrated by parents and guardians using the safe haven law to get help with their children.

Families with private health insurance or Medicaid have more options to get help with problem children, but the state has cut the amount of money it spends on behavioral health services. Moore told the paper that Nebraska is among the six states with the lowest eligibility for Kids Connection, health care coverage for qualified children that includes Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid. In most states, families that earn up to 250 percent of the poverty level are eligible, but in Nebraska, only families that earn at 185 percent and lower are able to qualify.

If you need help with your children’s behavior, consider calling 211 to access United Way information and referral services or looking into 24-hour crisis line or emergency shelters.