Join Date: Aug 2004
Local Time: 03:08 PM
Flawed Safe-Haven Law Leads To Child Abandonments
Don't know if any of you have been following this rather surreal story or not. Two quite different perspectives below:
Nebraska lawmakers consider revising 'safe-haven' law
By TIMBERLY ROSS, Associated Press, Sept. 27
OMAHA, Neb. — When Nebraska lawmakers passed a unique "safe-haven" law that allowed parents to abandon children as old as 18, they never seriously thought such dropoffs would become common. But their worst fears have come true: At least 16 children, some of them teenagers, have been abandoned since the law took effect in July. Now elected officials are considering revising the law, and at least one anguished parent said he only surrendered his kids because he felt he had no choice.
"If we see another family being left off, then we're going to have to do something immediately," said state Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced legislation that was the basis for the law. Stuthman said lawmakers need to set a maximum age for children who can be handed over to the state, and he's not sure whether it can wait until the Legislature reconvenes in January. But it's not clear whether Gov. Dave Heineman will call a special session to modify the law, even though he has said it should be changed.
For now, the law permits caregivers to abandon children at state-certified hospitals without fear of prosecution. It was intended to protect infants, but was amended to include the word "child," which isn't defined. So some have concluded the law covers all minors, which in Nebraska includes anyone under the age of 19.
The latest example happened Wednesday, when an out-of-work widower left nine of his 10 children at an Omaha hospital, saying he was overwhelmed by family responsibilities. Gary Staton went to Creighton University Medical Center to surrender his five sons and four of his daughters, who ranged in age from 1 to 17. He did not bring his oldest daughter, 18. Staton's wife died in early 2007, shortly after giving birth to their 10th child. The man told police he hasn't worked since July and was struggling to make ends meet.
...Nebraska lawmakers tried for years to pass the law, and they succeeded this year only after intense debate. Senators worried that an age limit was too arbitrary and that it might endanger youngsters who were just a week too old. "It does open a door to older children being left off," Sen. Gwen Howard said during debate of the bill. But she added: "I don't see that being a problem." She acknowledged Friday that the lack of an age limit had become an issue, but insisted it offers the state an opportunity to reach out to struggling families. "We need to look at the bigger picture of what's going on with parents and children," Howard said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, who cast the lone vote against the law, said Friday that lawmakers will be forced to revisit a bad bill. "I knew it would have broad results, and they would have to come back and readdress the issue," he said.
Nebraska was the last state to adopt a safe-haven law. Most other states have focused their laws on protecting infants.
Safe Haven Law: Frustrated families frustrate the system
by KARYN SPENCER AND MARTHA STODDARD
Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 28
Floyd Gulley fumed as a courtroom filled with strangers discussed what to do with his friend's 11-year-old grandson. The friend had left the boy Sept. 13 at an Omaha hospital under the state's new safe haven law, saying she was unable to handle the boy's growing violence, threats and tantrums. During a 15-minute hearing, the judge, lawyers and caseworkers agreed the boy needed several evaluations to determine his psychiatric, neurological and developmental problems and that he needed specialized therapy.
"Where were these people before?" Gulley asked after Wednesday's hearing. "How many kids are we going to drop off before we do anything?" said Gulley, who has served on a local foster care review board. "This was a wake-up call. We need to wake up and do something about these kids."
State social services officials disagree, saying parents and guardians need to step up and stand behind their children. But frustrated families and child advocates say they can't find help. Three parents or guardians said professionals in the system informed them about the law.
...The children, aside from the nine from the same family, have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having mental illnesses or behavioral problems, including violence, suicidal tendencies and aggression.
Eve Bleyhl, executive director of the Nebraska Family Support Network, hears complaints every day from families coping with similar problems: Families that get shuttled from provider to provider and back again. Families that are refused help because they have no insurance or their insurance ran out or it doesn't cover the needed service. Families that have been told the state can't step in unless their child commits a crime or is being abused or neglected. "There's not enough places to turn," Bleyhl said. "We see the families who have exhausted all their avenues."
Connie Hammitt lived that nightmare for nearly 12 years as she and her husband tried to get help for a severely mentally ill daughter. They didn't get the services they thought their daughter needed until Hammitt threatened to harm the girl. Hammitt said she made the threat using a script that had been suggested to her much earlier as a way to get help. "I had been told she had to be in danger or she had to put others in danger," Hammitt said. If the safe haven law had been in effect then, Hammitt would have considered using it. She considers it an act of love, not abandonment.
Leaders at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services say the cases raise no concerns about problems within the system. "The parents simply decided they did not want to continue on this journey with their kids," said Todd Landry, children and family services director. He said he doesn't want to minimize the challenges the families face, but said taking a child to a hospital is not the way to deal with those challenges. The department's initial review of the cases has not turned up problems with the state's system for responding to families in crisis, he said. He said there has been no indication that the families had been hit by economic troubles, and said most of the children have been covered by the state Medicaid program, which could pay for services.
Three parents and guardians said they received information about the law from professionals within the system: a therapist, a hospital social worker and a staff member with a county attorney's office. Kathy Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, said she wasn't surprised that professionals may have suggested the law as a way to access services, given the difficulty and complexity of getting services through other means. Nebraska ranks near the bottom for child care assistance and health care coverage for the children of working families, Moore said. It also is among the lowest in state spending on mental health care. "I think we're experiencing the cumulative effect of not providing as much preventive and supportive services," she said.
Gov. Dave Heineman and several state legislators have said they think the law should be reconsidered, although opinions varied about what changes should be made. Moore said the new law should have three parts: a system to protect infants; treatment for children and families needing special services; and better education and support for struggling families.
...Services also should be provided without punishing or shaming families, Bleyhl said. The comments by state officials criticizing families that used the safe haven law have followed the same punitive pattern that families often encounter when trying to get services, she said.
Some facts about the children:
--9 (ages 1 to 17) were from one family. The rest, ages 11 to 15, were dropped off singly.
--10 had one dead parent.
--1 was orphaned.
--4 were being raised by relatives other than parents.
--3 have been diagnosed with severe mental or emotional disorders.
While I find it unbelievable that they passed a safe-haven law without specifying an age limit, on the bright side (if there is a bright side) it sounds like this at least might be getting some needed public dialogue going about both children's needs for parental responsibility and parents' needs for outside support.