Published January 13, 2015
Nebraska's new safe-haven law allowing parents to abandon unwanted children at hospitals with no questions asked is unique in a significant way: It goes beyond babies and potentially permits the abandonment of anyone under 19.
While lawmakers may not have intended it, the month-old law raises the possibility that frustrated parents could drop off misbehaving teens or even severely disabled older children with impunity.
"Whether the kid is disabled or unruly or just being a hormonal teenager, the state is saying: 'Hey, we have a really easy option for you,"' said Adam Pertman, executive director of a New York adoption institute and a frequent critic of safe-haven laws.
Nebraska's approach is surprising because it is the last state in the nation to adopt a safe-haven law.
But instead of following the lead of other states, which focus on the abandonment of newborns, lawmakers here wanted to extend the protection to all minors. And in Nebraska, that goes all the way up to age 19.
"All children deserve our protection," said Sen. Tom White, who helped broaden the measure. "If we save one child from being abused, it's well, well worth it."
White said it doesn't matter if that child is an infant or three years old or in the care of a parent or baby sitter. As for what constitutes a minor, he refers to common law, which interprets it to be anyone under age 14.
State Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the original bill dealing only with infants, agreed to the compromise after the bill became stalled in debate.
"The main interest I have is that it gives the mother or a parent another option of what to do with a child before they do something drastic," he said.
The measure, which took effect July 18, does not absolve people of possible criminal charges -- for example, if a child had been beaten.
And since the law does not specify, it technically allows anyone, not just a parent, to legally surrender custody. Most other states narrowly define the role of the person surrendering the child.
Some hospitals have fielded questions from the public about the law, but no children have been dropped off.
"I hope there never is one," Stuthman said.
Pertman, who directs the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said his research going back several years shows safe-haven laws are not accomplishing what they intended. Women who are distressed enough to want to abandon their children are not the ones reading billboards or getting the message about these laws, he said.
Pertman finds Nebraska's law particularly alarming because it is not focused on infants and parents.
Casting such a wide net "circumvents every rational practice in child welfare that I'm aware of," he said. "That's as nicely as I can put it."
California, for example, allows parents to legally abandon a child at a hospital or other designated safe zones within 72 hours of birth.
The brevity of the law could trigger litigation over its meaning, said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor.
"This law is obviously written in almost skeletal form," he said. "Drafters will sometimes try to say as little as possible so they don't create ambiguity, but drafters here succeeded in writing the law in such a limited fashion that the entire provision is ambiguous."
Nebraska lawmakers acknowledge the courts will have to sort out the details, and they have said they are open to revisiting the legislation if necessary.
The Nebraska Hospital Association has been working to help its 85 member hospitals statewide establish procedures for dealing with abandonment cases.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, who voted against the law, said he would prefer to address the reasons that parents abandon their children rather than offer them safe haven.
"I don't think such laws are wise," he said.
Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of the child advocacy group Voices for Children in Nebraska, said she also worries how the law might affect adoption rates.
"The sad thing is we have plenty of other mechanisms for people to use," she said. "I'm not sure the safe-haven law is really going to help in a majority of cases."