Task Force Will Be Formed on Nebraska Safe Haven Law

Lawmakers are poised to close a loophole that led to troubled teens being abandoned at Nebraska hospitals, but they aren't stopping there. Instead, they're vowing to make sure families can get help in a crisis.

Six state senators formed a task force Thursday that promises to hand the Legislature proposals by the time it reconvenes in January.

Over the next 40 days, they'll work with child welfare experts, mental health specialists, hospital officials and others.

"What surfaced was not really what we had intended ... we have a crisis with older children," said Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the safe-haven bill that was approved earlier this year.

Senators are expected to add a 30-day age limit to the law on Friday, and Gov. Dave Heineman will likely sign the bill into law so it goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

The original safe-haven law was intended to prevent newborns from being dumped in trash bins or worse. Every state has such a law, but Nebraska's is the only one that lacks an age limit.

The consequences have startled lawmakers and others: None of the 35 children dropped off since September has been an infant, and most have been preteens and teenagers.

Lawmakers, health officials, child welfare experts and even parents who abandoned their children under the law say it shows a lack of services for families in crisis, and a difficulty in obtaining what services exist.

State officials disagree.

Todd Landry, who oversees child and family services for the state, told a legislative committee earlier this week that some of the children were unnecessarily abandoned and that none was in immediate danger of being harmed.

The task force plans three meetings over the next 40 days that won't be open to the public.

"We aren't going to solve this entire problem in 40 days," said Sen. Amanda McGill, chairwoman of the task force. "Families will continue to struggle."

Sen. Joel Johnson, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, has said he expects his committee to also make recommendations to the Legislature.

Among Johnson's suggestions is that the state help make up for the lack of psychiatrists by training other professional health care providers to better handle problems brought to light by use of the safe-haven law