Meeting in a special session this week, Nebraska lawmakers limited their controversial safe haven law to cover only infants up to 30 days old. So-called safe haven laws try to prevent babies from being abandoned by allowing people to leave them in a safe place without fear of prosecution. But Nebraska's law, passed last spring, contained no age limit, which led to some unexpected — and unwelcome — results.
When they debated the safe haven law last January, Nebraska legislators just couldn't agree on an age limit. Why should a 1-year-old baby be protected but not a 1-year-and-1-day-old baby? Eventually they agreed to a law simply using the word "child," with no age limit. Then they adjourned, not scheduled to meet again until next January.
The law took effect in July, and for the first couple of months, nothing happened. Then, in mid-September, the first child dropped off was not a baby but an 11-year-old boy. Since then, 34 more kids have been left at hospitals, including five from other states.
Not one was an infant; some were as old as 17. Todd Landry of the state's Department of Health and Human Services says that wasn't the intent of the law. "Safe haven laws were not meant to provide a way for parents or guardians to abandon their parental responsibilities," he says.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman called the Legislature back for a special session just to put an age limit in the law. That vote happened Friday morning, when lawmakers gave final approval to a 30-day age limit. But while the week saw lots of officials arguing policy, the most passionate discussion came from people who were personally involved, like Lavennia Coover.
At a public hearing, Coover described years of trying to get help for her behaviorally troubled son. After one last, failed attempt to get the 11-year-old to take his meds and go to school, Coover decided to use the safe haven law. She insisted her goal was to help her son, not abandon him.
"While I was at the hospital, I tried to let all the staff know why I was bringing my son there," Coover said at the hearing. "I told them that I was unable to give him the help that he needed. I stayed with my son even though the hospital staff kept telling me that I could leave. Around 11:45 p.m. that night I gave Schuyler a kiss, and a hug, and I told him that I loved him, and I went home."
But others said abandoning children who are old enough to realize what's happening leaves permanent scars. Lyman Wostrel says while his mother now regrets abandoning him years before the state's safe haven law was enacted, he still struggles with some painful memories.
"As much as a person says that I do love you, or whatever they try to justify that action, it is not the case," Wostrel says. "A child is smart enough to figure it out."
Nebraska was the last state to enact a safe haven law. And by including no age limit, it unearthed a larger issue: the lack of mental health services for young people in states across the nation. Testifying before legislators this week, Jeannie Marquardt said she encountered a maddening bureaucratic maze trying to get help for her son.
"One agency told me we were not eligible because we made too much money," Marquardt said. "Another one told me that he hadn't committed a crime, he could not get in. I had another agency tell me he wasn't bad enough."
Lawmakers say that's a problem that should be handled separately from the safe haven law. They promise to address it next year. But child welfare advocates say they hope that's not an empty promise, now that the unintended spotlight provided by the safe haven law has been extinguished.
Fred Knapp reports for NET Radio.