Nebraska Legislators Reconsider Unlimited Safe Haven Law
For 71 days last fall, events in the middle of the America echoed across the rest of the country. From September 13 to November 22, 36 children were left at Nebraska hospitals in 27 cases of Legislative Bill 157, a state "Safe Haven" law that allowed parents or guardians to leave children in the custody of hospital employees without facing prosecution for abandonment.
The intent of Nebraska's law, like that of similar laws on the books in all of the other 49 states, was to protect infants who might otherwise be abandoned. But LB 157 did not limit the age of children who could be left at hospitals. In fact, a 1-year-old girl who was left with her eight siblings was the youngest child transferred to hospital workers' custody; the average age of children left was 12.8 years.
Senator Arnie Stuthman introduced the bill in the Nebraska legislature January 8, 2007, and it carried over when the group reconvened in 2008. Stuthman's original presentation included both hospitals and fire stations as safe haven locations, and applied only to infants up to 3 days old. "My real intent for this bill is two things: number one is the safety and protection of the infant, the baby, and also protection of the mother. These mothers that are in this situation, to me are not criminals. They should not have to be prosecuted," Stuthman said during debate.
To garner more support, Stuthman agreed to an amendment that modified the bill to its form as passed, limited to hospitals and without a defined age for the children covered. Senator Pete Pirsch sponsored the amendment and addressed other legislators' concerns about using the term child instead of a concrete age. Pirsch said it should be taken as the "ordinary and common meaning," and added the age "probably would be interpreted by a court as equivalent to a minor child." In general, Nebraska law views a child as a youth who has not reached his or her 14th birthday. Pirsch explained that a legislative working group did not want to send the message that Nebraska would stop caring about a child's safety once the child reached a specific age.
Stuthman added an explanation in the final reading of the bill, embracing the new language but retaining his original intent: "We had a little bit of a debate and disagreementů Concerns about, is it 72 hours old, is it 80 hours old, is it 30 days old, is it 50 days old, how can you determine that? That is one of the reasons behind inserting the word child, that is one of the main issues. But a child can be a broader age, that could be involved. My main emphasis is on the small child, the protection of that small child, and the safety of that child."
In closing remarks before the bill's final reading and passage in early February, Stuthman promised the legislature would return to the law and try to address any "situations" its application may create. It turned out to be a prophetic statement, after Governor Dave Heineman approved LB 157 on February 13 and it went into effect July 18.
On September 13, an 11-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy were left at hospitals in separate cases. A week later a 13-year-old girl was turned over to hospital staff. A few days after that, national attention focused on Nebraska when, in three separate cases, an 11-year-old boy, a 15-year-old boy, and nine siblings ages 1 to 17 were brought to hospitals in the Omaha area. Soon parents from other states brought their children to Nebraska hospitals, apparently attempting to bypass the age limits in the safe haven laws of their home states.
At the end of October, when 23 children (only four of who were under age 10) had been left, Governor Heineman called a special session of the legislature to rewrite LB 157 to include an age limit. Before the session convened there was majority support for setting the limit at infants 3 days old, but during the week of debate in mid-November, that expanded to 1 month old. The special session's LB 1 is worded identically to LB 157, but adds "thirty days old or younger" to the earlier bill.
Throughout the fall, with many of the parents explaining they had been unable to find appropriate services to keep their families together, it became clear that more services, and better promotion of and access to them, might solve at least part of the problem. A Children in Crisis task force met during the break, and legislators have pledged to address this and other underlying causes of the situation in the current regular session.
Following up on this topic, we will explore Nebraska's experience and the national implications of safe haven laws in the next issue of the Voice.
In November, Mark Washington was named assistant commissioner for Georgia's Department of Human Resources (DHR), responsible for both the Division of Family and Children Services and the Office of Child Support Services. Washington was formerly commissioner for the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services.
"Mark has been an innovator in child welfare," DHR Commissioner B. J. Walker said in a press release. "He's developed award-winning approaches to child welfare case management, including being the first in the U.S. to develop a unique research and evaluation unit for Kentucky's child welfare system."
The New York Times reports that, following a 2005 law, the state is making a push to expand special education programs. Last fall, plans to open West-brook Preparatory School were approved; the $2.5 million institution for 24 middle and high school students will be New York's first residential school for youth with high-functioning autism, according to the Times. Birch Family Services is also planning to start a residential program this year. Currently, school districts' options are limited, and many are forced to send students out of state to fulfill their responsibility of providing an appropriate education for all students.
A recent ruling by a federal district judge determined that the state is in violation of the Child Welfare Act for its low payments to foster parents, according to the Los Angeles Times. Ruling in favor of the foster caregivers who brought the suit, the judge noted that in some cases California is paying only 60% of what is required to be eligible for federal matching funds. While the ruling did not order higher payments, the article explained that the judge asked the state to create a system to determine the actual cost of care for California's 75,000 foster children.
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