Parents have been using Nebraska's Safe Haven law to drop off children of any age at Nebraska hospitals without being prosecuted for abandonment. But a new state law approved Friday limits dropoffs to infants no more than 30 days old.
The Safe Haven law was orginally intended to give newborn parents an alternative when they couldn't care for their infants. But the Nebraska legislature had left a huge loophole: It hadn't set any age limit for the children.
"I think this solves the immediate problem of adolescents being abandoned," Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah told The Associated Press. "These kids are old enough to know they're being dropped off, and that's not good." Gov. Dave Heineman signed the new bill into law Friday afternoon. It will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. CT Saturday.
Under the original Safe Haven law, it wasn't just parents from Nebraska who abandoned their children in emergency rooms. Parents and guardians drove in from places like Georgia, Indiana and Michigan to drop off teens and preteens at various Omaha hospitals.
Social workers did as they were trained and called 911. A nurse at Creighton University Emergency Department made one of the most surprising calls: "I have a gentleman here who wants to give up his nine children."
Every week it seemed one or two more children or teens were left at local hospitals. Not everyone was surprised, especially those on the front lines.
Social workers like Courtney Anderson were predicting trouble from the start. "I was definitely shocked when I heard there wasn't an age limit set," she said. "We as social workers in this field anticipated that we would be getting those children and that it wouldn't be infants."
But by late October more than 20 children had been dropped off at hospital emergency rooms. The pressure on the state legislature to change the law was growing. By November, as the cases climbed past 30, the Nebraska legislature had convened a special session, culminating in a 43-5 vote that set the 30-day age limit.
The question still remains: Who were these Safe Haven parents and why would they do such a shocking thing?
Some in the community were outraged. One mother was so concerned she and her family took to the streets in protest.
"I have been frustrated at times but not to the point that I would leave my kids. Those parents, instead of dropping those kids off, they need to fix what's wrong in the home," she said.
"20/20" spent the last several months investigating and found that the Safe Haven families may be not what you expect. The cases are all different but many are people with no idea how to keep their severely disturbed offspring from destroying the family.
Lavennia Coover is a kindergarten teacher and mother of three who says her main goal in life is to get help for her youngest son, Skyler, 11. She said she used the law because Skyler is dangerous. She was worried about the danger to herself but especially to her other son, 12-year-old Colby. She says Skyler often beat up his older brother and threatened him with knives and sharp sticks.
Coover says her efforts to help Skyler began when he was 8. She said he had attacked her, kicking, scratching and biting her, so she took him to a psychiatrist who diagnosed bipolar disorder among other mental disorders.