OMAHA, Neb. – An out-of-work widower who abandoned nine of his children at a hospital under Nebraska's new safe haven law said he was overwhelmed without his wife and just "fell apart."
"I hope they know I love them," Gary Staton told KETV. "I hope their future is better without me around them."
The unique law allows caregivers to abandon babies and teenagers alike at hospitals without fear of prosecution. Originally intended to protect infants, it was expanded in a legislative compromise to protect any "child." Some have interpreted that to mean anyone under 19.
Staton anonymously left the five boys and four girls — ages 1 to 17 — at Creighton University Medical Center's emergency room on Wednesday night. He has a 10th child, a daughter who is 18 and was not dropped off.
A number of relatives have volunteered to take the siblings, said Kathie Osterman, a spokeswoman for the state department Health and Human Services.
Staff members were doing required background checks Friday in hopes of placing the children in the next few days, she said.
Staton said his wife died early last year, shortly after delivering their youngest child. He said he quit his job because of his family responsibilities but couldn't pay rent or utilities or take care of his kids.
"I was with her for 17 years, and then she was gone," he said of his late wife. "What was I going to do? We raised them together. I didn't think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn't take care of them."
Staton said he surrendered them so they would be safe.
A call Friday to a number listed for Staton went unanswered.
A 2007 interview with Staton's oldest daughter in Omaha North High School's student newspaper said she shouldered some of the parenting duties at home. Despite helping to feed her siblings, check their homework and put them to bed, the teen managed to graduate a year early.
Once a child is abandoned under the safe haven law, the courts become involved. Parental rights don't end automatically, but parents who change their minds about abandonment may find it difficult to regain custody.
At least 16 children have been abandoned since the law took effect in July.
Hospitals call police when a child is left, and officers will usually place a child in protective custody. Then the county attorney determines whether a child should be allowed to return home and makes a recommendation to a judge.
Now that teenagers are being abandoned, Gov. Dave Heineman, who signed the law, and some other former supporters are saying changes are needed. The Legislature reconvenes in January.