Video: Safe haven law has unintended consequences

updated 10/8/2008 8:07:08 PM ET 2008-10-09T00:07:08

More than a dozen children have been abandoned under Nebraska's unique safe-haven law, which allows children as old as 18 to be abandoned without fear of prosecution. But the case of a 14-year-old girl from Iowa has stoked fears of an influx of unwanted out-of-state children.

The law, which took effect in July, permits caregivers to leave children at hospitals. Like similar laws in other states, it was intended to protect infants. But the Nebraska law was written to include the word "child," without setting an age limit.

Some have taken the word "child" in the law to mean "minor," which in Nebraska includes anyone under the age of 19. Others have taken the common law definition, which includes those under age 14.

And the law doesn't preclude people from out of state from leaving their children in Nebraska, which leaves some uncertainty about its current reach.

"It really concerns me that (people from) other states are possibly going to be leaving their children here," said state Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the bill that was the basis for the safe-haven law.

17 children abandoned so far
Thus far, 17 children have been abandoned under the safe-haven law, including nine from a single family. A 14-year-old girl from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was left at a hospital across the Missouri River in Omaha late Tuesday.

Nebraska lawmakers aren't scheduled to convene again until January, but they already are re-examining the law they passed in the spring.

Gov. Dave Heineman has not ruled out calling a rare special session of the Legislature to fix the law, but he has been reluctant to do so.

"The governor remains hopeful that a special session won't be needed, but this issue must be addressed immediately at the beginning of the next session," Heineman's spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein said Wednesday.

Jeanne Atkinson, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said that despite the safe-haven law, the state could seek to press other charges, including child neglect charges, against those that abandon children.

State Sen. Mike Flood, speaker of the Legislature, said he hasn't heard of any senators calling for a special session. But he said when the law is revised, he would like to see it pertain only to Nebraska residents, although he didn't say how that might be accomplished.

Abandonments expected to climb
The number of children left will continue to climb, including the possibility of seeing children left by desperate parents pushed to the brink by the souring economy, said child advocate Kathy Bigsby Moore. She pointed to research that links economic stress and other risk factors for children.

"My main hope is that this Iowa case doesn't distract policy-makers from the real issue, which is that Nebraska children and families need an avenue for obtaining services and respite for very difficult family situations," said Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska.

Todd Landry, director of Nebraska's Division of Children and Family Services, said the safe-haven law's legal protections might not prevent prosecution in the case of the Iowa girl. Whoever abandoned the 14-year-old might be prosecuted in Iowa if a different law, such as child neglect, could be applied to the situation.

An investigation continues, Landry said Wednesday. He declined to offer details, including who left the child and under what circumstances.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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