LINCOLN, Neb – Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman signed into law Friday a bill adding a 30-day age limit to a safe-haven law that allowed 35 children — including teenagers as old as 17 — to be abandoned at state hospitals.
The law, approved hours earlier by the Legislature in a 45-3 vote, goes into effect Saturday, and makes Nebraska the 14th state with a 30-day age cap. It had been the only state with a safe-haven law without an age limit.
"I think this solves the immediate problem of adolescents being abandoned," said state Sen. Kent Rogert. "These kids are old enough to know they're being dropped off, and that's not good."
The law was meant to prevent newborns from being dumped in trash bins or worse.
But it has been used to abandon 35 children at state hospitals since July — many of them preteens or teenagers as old as 17.
Hospital officials have described children crying hysterically as they pleaded with their parents not to leave them.
Five of the children have been from other states, including from as far away as Florida and Michigan. The law was not revised to preclude infants from other states from being dropped off.
Heineman said the age limit should keep Nebraska from becoming a dumping ground for children from out of state and will refocus the law on lawmakers' original intent — to protect newborns.
Parents and guardians who have dropped off the kids have said they have done so because they thought they had nowhere else to turn.
None of the children dropped off were infants — a point some child welfare advocates and others have said shows of a lack of public services to help troubled older youths.
Lawmakers have vowed to address the issue during the regular legislative session, which convenes in January, and have formed a task force to forge recommendations.
State officials deny there is a lack of services and have said some of the children were unnecessarily abandoned.
Most of the kids got help under Medicaid, the vast majority have received mental health services in the past, and only one of the 30 kids from Nebraska has required intensive treatment since being dropped off, state officials said.
Heineman softened the state's position some on Friday, but is not completely convinced that there is a problem.
"We may have a gap in services, but that's something we need to evaluate," he said. "We will cooperate fully with the committee," he said of the new legislative task force.
Some parents who have stopped short of dropping off children say they sympathize with those who have.
Therese Guy of Papillion said she became a foster parent to a boy who had previously committed a sexual offense and it took nine months for him to get his mental problems diagnosed.
"It was just that booked up to get him into a center," she said earlier this week. "Don't change the safe-haven law until you have other changes in place, because it's helping kids now."
While there is an outcry by some lawmakers and child-welfare experts for the state to fix a safety net they say is broken, some question how much government can do to solve the problems.
"There are going to be things beyond our reach," said state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh. "The government can't replace a parent."