Neb. lawmakers agree to set age limit on safe-haven law

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Stung by the abandonment of children as old as 17 at Nebraska hospitals, the governor and lawmakers struck a deal Monday to rewrite the state's safe-haven law so it applies only to infants up to three days old.

A rash of drop-offs in recent months, particularly those of teenagers and from out of state, thrust the state into the national spotlight. The law was ridiculed on an episode of "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend.

Forty of the 49 senators in the unicameral legislature and Gov. Dave Heineman have agreed to the changes, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said during a news conference on Monday.

The state's safe-haven law allows caregivers to abandon children -- interpreted by some to include those as old as 18 -- at hospitals without fear of prosecution. The age cap would change Nebraska's safe-haven law from the most lenient in the country to one of the most restrictive. Sixteen other states have a similar 3-day-old age cap.

At least 18 children, aged 22 months to 17 years, have been abandoned since the law took effect in July, including a child from Iowa and a Michigan child who was driven from there by his mother.

The Nebraska law, intended to prevent infants from being dumped or abandoned in dangerous places by mothers who don't want them, has had "serious, unintended consequences," Heineman said. "This law needs to be changed to focus on infants."

Heineman has said he would prefer not to call a special session to change the law before the regular session starts in January, though he indicated that if more out-of-state children were abandoned under the law he might change his mind.

Flood said lawmakers would likely quickly change the law in the first couple of weeks of the new year.

In the meantime, Nebraska officials are trying to prevent more drop-offs.

Heineman has authorized Health and Human Services to spend up to $100,000 promoting a help line operated by the United Way for parents and guardians. The state is also sending letters to all adoptive parents and guardians of children who are former state wards providing phone numbers and websites of agencies that can help them if they are having problems with their children.

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