Neb. Safe Haven Law Draws Criticism

The parental abandonment of yet another teenager -- this time from out of state -- under Nebraska's controversial safe haven law has prompted calls for revising the law and focused attention on the plight of overwhelmed parents.

Since the law went into effect in July, 17 children, ages 1 to 17, have been dropped off at hospitals and police stations by parents or guardians who said they could no longer take care of them. None of the children was in immediate danger, according to the Nebraska governor's office.

Though every state has a safe haven law, which allows parents to leave their infants with government agencies without fear of prosecution, Nebraska is the only state that allows parents to give up any "child" under 18.

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Abandonment can have a devastating impact on older children, child welfare experts say.

"Abandonment validates their worst fears and gives them proof that they don't have a secure spot in their families," said Lisa Blunt, therapy and support director at Child Saving Institute, which runs a children's 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.

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