Stung by the abandonments of children as old as 17 under Nebraska's new "safe haven" law, the governor and lawmakers agreed Monday to narrow the legislation's broad wording to protect only the parents of newborns from prosecution.
Forty of the Legislature's 49 senators support amending the law so it applies only to infants up to 3 days old, legislative Speaker Mike Flood said at a news conference. The age cap would change the Nebraska law from the most lenient to one of the nation's most restrictive.
At least 18 children, the youngest 22 months and many of them teens, have been abandoned since the law took effect in July. Nebraska's law doesn't define the word "child," so it has been interpreted to let anyone leave child up to age 18 at a state-licensed hospital without fear of prosecution for the abandonment.
Most states let parents and guardians drop off children who are up to a month old at hospitals or other safe institutions. Sixteen states have a 3-day-old age cap such as the one agreed to in Nebraska.
Every state has a safe-haven law, which is meant to save the lives of unwanted infants.
The Nebraska law has had "serious, unintended consequences," Gov. Dave Heineman said. "This law needs to be changed to focus on infants."
The governor reiterated that he would prefer not to call a special session before the Legislature's regular session in January. But he indicated he could change his mind.
"If circumstances dictate, particularly if we have several more from out of state, I won't hesitate to make that call" for a special session, Heineman said.
Should Heineman not call a special session, Flood said, lawmakers would quickly change the law, probably within the first couple weeks of the session.
The rash of drop-offs included a teenage girl from Iowa and a Michigan boy whose mother drove to Omaha to leave him at a Omaha hospital. The events put Nebraska in the type of national spotlight that makes politicians wince.
"Saturday Night Live" poked fun at the law last weekend. During the "Weekend Update" segment, Seth Meyers said, "A second teenager has been left at an area hospital under Nebraska's new safe-haven law, which allows parents to abandon their children without fear of prosecution. Or what is known in Manhattan as boarding school."
A national expert on safe-haven laws commended Nebraska officials for moving to impose an age limit, but he said action should be taken now to prevent older children from receiving the scars of abandonment.
"It affects children," said Tim Jaccard, president of the National Safe Haven Alliance. "When children are older they have the ability to understand what's going on and they're thinking, 'Mommy and Daddy don't want me anymore, so they're throwing me in a hospital.' That's a psychological blow."
Jaccard said that over the last decade about 1,560 kids have been dropped off under safe-haven laws.
Before the law is changed, Nebraska officials are trying to prevent more drop-offs.
Heineman has authorized Health and Human Services to spend up to $100,000 promoting a help line for parents and guardians operated by United Way. If it is flooded with calls, up to $200,000 in state money could be used to add phone lines.
The state is also sending letters to all adoptive parents and guardians of children who are former state wards. The letter provides phone numbers and Web sites of agencies that can help them if they are having problems with their children.
The letter also suggests parents contact Boys Town, an Omaha home for troubled youths that for decades has taken in children who are having problems.
The letter does not mention that Nebraska has a safe-haven law.