OMAHA, Neb. – When Nebraska lawmakers passed a unique "safe-haven" law that allowed parents to abandon children as old as 18, they never seriously thought such dropoffs would become common.
But their worst fears have come true: At least 16 children, some of them teenagers, have been abandoned since the law took effect in July. Now elected officials are considering revising the law, and at least one anguished parent said he only surrendered his kids because he felt he had no choice.
"If we see another family being left off, then we're going to have to do something immediately," said state Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced legislation that was the basis for the law.
Stuthman said lawmakers need to set a maximum age for children who can be handed over to the state, and he's not sure whether it can wait until the Legislature reconvenes in January.
But it's not clear whether Gov. Dave Heineman will call a special session to modify the law, even though he has said it should be changed.
For now, the law permits caregivers to abandon children at state-certified hospitals without fear of prosecution. It was intended to protect infants, but was amended to include the word "child," which isn't defined. So some have concluded the law covers all minors, which in Nebraska includes anyone under the age of 19.
The latest example happened Wednesday, when an out-of-work widower left nine of his 10 children at an Omaha hospital, saying he was overwhelmed by family responsibilities.
Gary Staton went to Creighton University Medical Center to surrender his five sons and four of his daughters, who ranged in age from 1 to 17. He did not bring his oldest daughter, 18.
Staton's wife died in early 2007, shortly after giving birth to their 10th child. The man told police he hasn't worked since July and was struggling to make ends meet.
"I was with her for 17 years, and then she was gone. What was I going to do?" Staton said to Omaha television station KETV. "We raised them together. I didn't think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn't take care of them."
Calls by The Associated Press to a number listed for Staton went unanswered Friday.
A number of relatives have volunteered to take the Staton siblings, said Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman for the state department of Health and Human Services. She said the children may be temporarily placed with those family members until a judge decides on permanent custody.
Osterman said Staton never asked relatives for help.
Todd Landry, director of the division of Children and Family Services, said the safe-haven law was designed to help children who are in danger, but none of the kids who were dropped off had been in harm's way.
In addition to Staton's kids, two unrelated boys were left Wednesday at a different Omaha hospital.
Landry said he empathizes with parents who struggle to raise their families, but "it is the job of a parent to be a parent." He said there are resources to help them.
James Blue, president and CEO of the Lincoln-based nonprofit Cedars, which works with abused and neglected children, said he's been inundated with calls ever since the safe-haven law took effect.
He said the group gets more than 10 calls a day from struggling parents, and its temporary shelter is at its capacity of 15.
"While this (law) has, I think, exposed an underbelly of our society of families that are dropping teenagers off forever at a hospital, it has also given a message to families that there is help out there," Blue said.
He said it's important for the state to have a safe-haven law, but there needs to be an age limit for the children who are left behind.
Nebraska lawmakers tried for years to pass the law, and they succeeded this year only after intense debate. Senators worried that an age limit was too arbitrary and that it might endanger youngsters who were just a week too old.
"It does open a door to older children being left off," Sen. Gwen Howard said during debate of the bill. But she added: "I don't see that being a problem."
She acknowledged Friday that the lack of an age limit had become an issue, but insisted it offers the state an opportunity to reach out to struggling families.
"We need to look at the bigger picture of what's going on with parents and children," Howard said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, who cast the lone vote against the law, said Friday that lawmakers will be forced to revisit a bad bill.
"I knew it would have broad results, and they would have to come back and readdress the issue," he said.
Nebraska was the last state to adopt a safe-haven law. Most other states have focused their laws on protecting infants.
For years, child-welfare experts have disagreed about whether safe-haven laws reduce the total number of abandoned children.
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and an opponent of safe-haven laws, said he's never seen anything like what's happening in Nebraska.
"What we're seeing is the unfolding of a policy that wasn't well thought-out," he said.