Deciding he could wait no longer to address what has become a state embarrassment, Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday he will call a special legislative session to amend Nebraska’s loosely worded safe-haven law, which in just a few months has allowed parents to abandon nearly two dozen children as old as 17.
Heineman had planned to wait until the next regular legislative session convened in January, but changed his mind as the number of children dropped off at hospitals grew. Two teenagers were abandoned Tuesday night alone, and three children dropped off previously did not even live in Nebraska.
“We’ve had five in the last eight days,” Heineman said in explaining why he called a special session. “We all hoped this wouldn’t happen.”
The special session will begin Nov. 14. That’s less than two months before the regular legislative session, but the governor and others see a need to act quickly.
“This law needs to be changed to reflect its original intent” to protect infants, Heineman said during a news conference Wednesday.
The law, which was signed by Heineman in February and took effect in July, prohibits parents from being prosecuted for leaving a child at a hospital.
Use of the word “child” was a compromise after legislators disagreed about what age limit to set, but that decision made Nebraska’s safe-haven law the broadest in the nation by far. Most states have age limits ranging from 3 days to about a month.
Some children from other states
As of Wednesday 23 children had been left at Nebraska hospitals, including nine from one family and children from Iowa, Michigan and Georgia. Many are teenagers, only one is younger than 6 and and none are babies.
Most Nebraska lawmakers have agreed upon revisions that would put an age limit of 3 days on infants who could be dropped off at hospitals.
Veteran legislator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who opposes safe-haven laws and is skilled at killing laws he doesn’t like, said Wednesday that he will not obstruct passage of the revision.
“It is terrible for children at those ages that are being dropped off to be deserted and abandoned,” he said. “I think the governor has made a very wise decision.”
A 17-year-old Lincoln boy was left at a Lincoln hospital Tuesday night. State officials said the boy’s stepfather and mother took him to BryanLGH Medical Center West and that the boy was in state care.
According to Lincoln Police Capt. Jim Thoms, the parents told officers the boy wouldn’t follow the parents’ rules and that they couldn’t afford some programs he needed.
In a statement Wednesday issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, Children and Family Services division director Todd Landry confirmed the boy was the 23rd left at a Nebraska hospital.
Girl abandoned overnight
Also Tuesday night, a 15-year-old girl was abandoned by her father at an Omaha hospital. Landry said authorities believe the girl is from Nebraska. And on Monday evening, a 15-year-old girl from Nebraska was left at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. She has been placed in a residential shelter while authorities continue to investigate her situation, Landry said.
The children brought from Iowa and Michigan have been returned to their states, and Lancaster County officials said Tuesday that the child from Georgia will be turned over to child-welfare worker from that state on Wednesday.