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.
In the years that followed, she took him to other therapists and hospitals, but says she feared his behavior would not truly improve without full-time residential care which she could not afford.
But while Coover was seeking a place for Skyler, she believed she and her family were in danger. She used the Safe Haven law because she said she couldn't afford to wait until something tragic happened before Skyler got more help than she could give.
Some kids were dropped off not by parents, but by uncles, aunts or grandparents. Every weekday morning Cindy Spangler gets up at 6:30 to make her grandchildren breakfast. There is 13- year-old Keerstyn, 11-year-old Sierra and 8-year-old Samantha. But someone is missing: their 12-year-old brother, Bryan.
A few weeks ago Spangler asked her daughter Cynthia, Bryan's aunt, to bring him to Immanuel Medical Center, back to the residential treatment care program where he'd been for the last 11 months.
"I mean, he threatened to kill the next-door neighbor little boy, screaming to the top of his lungs," Cynthia said. "I've tried to explain to him by doing that -- if somebody else was to do that -- they would take you to jail. That was where he was going to end up if we didn't do something."
So Cynthia walked through the emergency room doors of Immanuel hospital and there, she said, she talked to a caseworker, but, says she never used the words Safe Haven. She said she told the nurses the boy needed to see his psychiatrist and be readmitted to residential treatment.
"But by that point I was in tears, he was in tears. He had just got done telling the police officer I'm going to kill myself. I just looked at them and said, 'I gotta go.'"
Cynthia said it was desperation that motivated her, not a lack of concern for the boy. She and her family still hope to help him.
"If anybody in Nebraska has looked for help anywhere it's been my mom. She's been dealing with this child for the last eight years trying her best to get him on the right track. He did have a rough start and he does have a lot of major issues, doesn't mean you give up on him."
As the Nebraska legislature began the session on amending the Safe Haven law Monday, Eve Bleyhl traveled to the hearing by bus with families that hoped to tell lawmakers about what drives such a drastic action.
"Everybody else gets to judge and discuss what they could have done, should have done, didn't do. But they rarely have had the opportunity to stand up for themselves," said Bleyhl, executive director of the Nebraska Family Support Network, an agency that works with families with troubled children.
She said families want the legislature to understand that changing the law won't change the real problem: the lack of help for parents whose kids who are truly disturbed. Bleyhl hopes the legislators will ultimately address what she says the law didn't cause, but merely exposed.
"It's common knowledge that there's a problem," she said. "Professionals are just as frustrated about it as families. What needs to happen is that the professionals need to continue bringing the families to the table to ensure appropriate solutions."
Angie Thiel understands how desperate some parents can become. She's helping her son pack for a residential treatment program. He's going away for what may be a very long time.
Alex is a sweet-sounding boy, but a troubled one. He has been hospitalized 26 times since he was 5 years old. His recently broken hand is a testament to his sometimes uncontrollable anger.
Alex said, "I have a cast because I punched a wall. It's healing pretty well but I broke my bone in my hand right here and I broke my pinky. I don't know why. I stood up on my bed and faced the wall and just punched it as hard as I could and that's how I hurt my hand."
Alex's moods can swing with no warning. Theil said he's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as intermittent explosive disorder, impulse control conduct disorder and anti-social personality disorder. "I've been afraid of him as he's gotten bigger. And I'm afraid that he would hurt me."
She's also afraid that Alex might harm her 2-year-old son, Caden. For years Theil has lived with tension and fear, fear of the phone ringing, worried it might be the school or police reporting more trouble with Alex. One day she had to call the police on him.
She thinks Alex needs full-time psychiatric care. But getting it has not been easy. Alex spent almost a year at Nebraska's I Believe in Me Ranch. But Theil said Alex was forced to leave when the insurance ran out. She has managed after months of trying to get him accepted at Boys Town, the famous residential treatment center.
As they drove to Boys Town, she felt luckier, but not different, than others who had made similar drives to a Safe Haven hospital with their child. "We haven't had to go the Safe Haven route but the possibility of knowing we would have to in a crisis situation I would understand why."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.