Some former supporters of the state's new "safe haven" law are calling for changes after 11 children as old as 17, including nine from one family, were dropped off at Omaha hospitals.
The law, unique to the state, allows caregivers to abandon babies and teenagers alike at hospitals without fear of prosecution. It was originally intended to protect infants, but was expanded in a legislative compromise to protect any "child." Some have interpreted that to mean anyone under 19.
Gov. Dave Heineman, who signed the law, and others now say tweaks are needed.
"People are leaving them off just because they can't control them," state Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the original bill, said Thursday. "They're probably in no real danger, so it's an easy way out for the caretaker."
A father, who was not identified, left nine children — five boys and four girls ages 1 to 17 — at Creighton University Medical Center's emergency room on Wednesday, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Unrelated boys ages 11 and 15 also were surrendered Wednesday at another hospital.
At least 16 children have been abandoned since the law took effect in July, the state agency said.
Todd Landry, director of the state division of Children and Family Services, said that in nearly every case, the parents who left their children felt overwhelmed and had decided they didn't want to be parents anymore. None of the kids dropped off so far have been in danger, he said.
"It was the parents not wanting to continue the journey with their kids," Landry said Thursday at a news conference in Lincoln.
The department was still investigating Wednesday's drop-offs. The abandoned siblings were in no danger and it wasn't clear why their father gave them up, Landry said.
Five of the nine siblings were placed in a foster home and the rest were taken to an emergency shelter, he said. The department was working on a new arrangement that would keep the kids together.
In the other cases on Wednesday, one child was temporarily placed in foster care and the other was in the hospital for evaluation.
Youngsters abandoned under the safe haven law are generally placed in protective custody while the courts decide where the child should live.
Parental rights don't end automatically but parents who change their minds about abandonment may find it difficult to regain custody. A county attorney may determine that a child should be allowed to return home, Landry said.
Nebraska was the last state in the nation to adopt a safe haven law. Under previous law, a parent who abandoned a baby could have been charged with child neglect or abandonment, both misdemeanors, or child abuse, a felony.
Stuthman said he introduced the bill intending to protect infants. In a compromise with senators worried about arbitrary age limits, the measure was expanded.
Though the governor has called for changes to the safe haven law, the Legislature does not meet until January. When asked whether Heineman would call a special session, his spokeswoman said the focus now is on educating parents about alternatives to abandonment.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said he talked with Heineman on Thursday about the recent uses of the law. Flood, of Norfolk, said other state senators have also been discussing what changes need to be made.