LINCOLN, Neb. — The mother was running out of more than patience when she abandoned her 18-year-old daughter at a hospital over the weekend under Nebraska's safe-haven law. She was also running out of time: She knew that state lawmakers would soon meet in a special session to amend the ill-fated law so that it would apply to newborns only.
"Where am I going to get help if they change the law?" said the mother, who lives in Lincoln and asked to not be identified by name to protect her adopted child.
To the state's surprise and embarrassment, more than half of the 31 children legally abandoned under the safe-haven law since it took effect in mid-July have been teenagers.
But state officials may have inadvertently made things worse with their hesitant response to the problem: The number of drop-offs has almost tripled to about three a week since Gov. Dave Heineman announced on Oct. 29 that lawmakers would rewrite the law.
With legislators set to convene on Friday, weary parents like the Lincoln mother have been racing to drop off their children while they still can.
Race against the clock
On Thursday, authorities searched for a 17-year-old girl who fled an Omaha hospital after her mother tried to abandon her and her 14-year-old brother. The mother was taking them from the car to the emergency room when the daughter took off.
Child-welfare experts said the late deluge of drop-offs was probably inevitable. After all, they said, some date had to be picked to begin changing the law.
But some of them said lawmakers and the governor missed chances to change the law early because they underestimated the number of desperate families looking for help. Heineman called the special session only after a spate of five drop-offs in eight days.
Reluctance to pull senators away from their jobs and election campaigns, along with the estimated $70,000 to $80,000 cost of a special session, were among the reasons Heineman's office cited in holding off on calling a special session sooner.
"I think there was a fair amount of denial on the part of legislators that it would snowball," said Karen Authier, executive director of the Nebraska Children's Home Society.
The safe-haven law was intended to save "Dumpster babies" by allowing desperate young mothers to abandon their newborns at a hospital without fear of prosecution. But lawmakers could not agree on an age limit, and the law as passed uses only the word "child."
All states have safe-haven laws, but in every state but Nebraska, the law applies to infants only.
Authier said her group and others had warned senators after the law passed early this year that there could be problems, but the lawmakers did not believe it.
"It wasn't like talking to a stone wall," Authier said. "It was just that people who aren't in the business of dealing with families, they aren't aware how desperate some of these families are."
Sure enough, 18 teenagers — five 17-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, six 15-year-olds, two 14-year-olds, three 13-year-olds — have been abandoned, along with eight children who were 11 or 12. Five of the children dropped off have been from out of state.
The Lincoln mother who dropped off her 18-year-old daughter said she was repeatedly turned down when she sought help from police, state social services authorities and the girl's school. The woman said her daughter had been diagnosed with a mental illness when she was 12 and had deep psychological scars from childhood abuse and from being left alone with her dead biological mother for a week.
The woman said she felt she had no choice but to leave her daughter at the hospital after a recent flurry of assault, stealing, sleeping around and cutting school.
"I thought she would get help" through the safe-haven law, the mother said.
However, state authorities refused to take the young woman into custody, saying Nebraska law regarding juveniles does not let authorities take in anyone older than 17. The woman left with her daughter.
Fourteen children in all have been left at three hospitals operated by Alegent Health in the Omaha area.
"These are largely families at a point of incredible desperation," said Wayne Sensor, chief executive of Alegent Health. "They aren't bad parents or bad kids. They simply don't know what services are available out there."
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