Neb. Safe Haven Law Draws More Than Infants
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In the past month, 18 children have been left at Nebraska hospitals, under the states new safe haven law. The law allows parents or guardians to leave a child without fear of prosecution. Most safe haven laws are intended to protect infants.
In Nebraska, there is no age limit. And nearly all of the children who were dropped off in the last month have been older than 11. Courtney Anderson has seen seven of these cases. She's a social worker at Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. She told us what happens when someone comes to her emergency room.
Ms. COURTNEY ANDERSON (Social Worker, Immanuel Hospital, Omaha, Nebraska): The parent or guardian will tell the registration representative, I am bringing my child in under the safe haven law. The registration representative will usually call the social worker and the triage nurse, and you know, we go from there.
I'll come in and I'll try and talk to the parent or guardian, they're not required to stay, but we try and get them to stay to get medical information about the child, and a little bit about what's going on. Then I'll give the parent or guardian a handout on the safe haven law. And then, you know, our main goal at that point is just to support the child, keep them safe, and try and keep the situation as calm as possible.
BLOCK: What have the children's reactions been through all of this?
Ms. ANDERSON: Some of the children know what's going on. You know, maybe the parent or guardian told them on the way to the hospital? Some of the children don't know what's going on, so you know, we've had such an extreme of emotions.
Some of the children are very upset, they're crying, they're begging the parent or guardian not to leave. Some have said, I'll be good. I'll be good, please don't leave me. You know, and then some are fairly - the best way I can describe is numb, you know, without emotion.
BLOCK: What do you tell those children, the ones who are upset, begging their parents not to go?
Ms. ANDERSON: You know, our main goal as social workers is to make sure that the child is safe, and that they're comforted. So, we'll say, I'm not sure all the details of everything that's going on right now, but you're going to be safe and you're OK.
Then, you know, we'll make sure that they have a blanket if they're cold, if they're hungry, we will get them something to eat, but we don't want to promise them anything that we can't promise. So we don't give too much information until we know the facts.
BLOCK: Are the kids being brought in with anything to keep them going? Do they have clothes? Do they have anything with them?
Ms. ANDERSON: The ones that I have seen, no, they're not brought in with clothes, or backpacks, or things like that. Maybe medications or medical information is shared with us, but not necessarily belongings.
BLOCK: Hmm. Are you starting to see a pattern in terms of the background of the families, what's going on at home?
Ms. ANDERSON: We have a lot of instances where, you know, the parents and the child have been fighting, and this has been going on for a number of years. Issues of truancy, runaway, or mental-health diagnoses.
BLOCK: I was reading some descriptions of these cases in the Omaha World-Herald, and it did seem that a number of these children were deeply, deeply troubled, severe psychiatric problems. Violence toward their caregiver...
Ms. ANDERSON: Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: And one man, an uncle who left his 15-year-old nephew said, I'm done beating my head against the wall. He's been trying to get help for the kid, trying a lot of different avenues apparently, and none of them worked.
Ms. ANDERSON: Right.
BLOCK: This was the last resort.
Ms. ANDERSON: Yeah. I know, and parents and guardians are very frustrated, and feel like they don't know where to turn, or this is their last resort for them. So part of our goal as social workers is to talk to them about options, and many of these families didn't know about a lot of the agencies that are available out there.
BLOCK: I know social workers see a lot of really, tough stuff all the time. But I just imagine that you and your co-workers at the hospital must be pretty torn apart, by what you're seeing with these cases.
Ms. ANDERSON: We are. You know, we get into this field, because we love what we do and we can't imagine doing anything else. But it is emotionally taxing and you know, especially if you do work in an emergency room, you have so many cases going on, you know, you can have patients dying in one room or you know, a gunshot wound or another child - a child abuse is going on, or maybe a sexual assault, and then you can have a potential safe haven at the same time.
So, we've really been challenged to give everything that we have and then more, when we feel like we don't have anything else to give.
BLOCK: Well, Courtney Anderson, thanks very much for talking with us.
Ms. ANDERSON: You're welcome. Thank you.
BLOCK: Courtney Anderson is a social worker at Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. She says of the eight children brought to the hospital under the safe haven law, five have become wards of the state. Three ultimately ended up going home with their parents.
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