Nebraska Rewrites Child Drop-Off Law

**FILE** This file photo from Aug. 22, 2008 shows a sign proclaiming the Alegent Health Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., a safe haven place. A Nebraska law allows anyone, not just a parent, to abandon a child at any state-licensed hospital. The law doesn't further define child, and some have interpreted that to mean anyone in Nebraska under the age of 19. In two separate cases over the weekend, boys aged 11 and 15 were dropped off at Omaha's Immanuel Medical Center and at Lincoln's Bryant LGH Medical Center. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File) AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Nebraska state senators and Gov. Dave Heineman have agreed to put a strict age limit in the controversial safe-haven law to prevent more drop-offs of older children at hospitals.

Forty of the state Legislature's 49 senators have agreed to amend the law so it only applies to infants up to 3 days old, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said during a news conference on Monday. The age cap would change Nebraska's safe-haven law from the most lenient in the country to one of the most restrictive.

At least 18 children, the youngest 22 months and many of them teens, have been abandoned since the law took effect in July. Nebraska's law is the only one in the country that lets anyone leave a child as old as 18 at a state-licensed hospital without fear of prosecution for the abandonment.

Most states let parents and guardians drop off children who are up to a month old at hospitals or other safe institutions. Sixteen states have a 3-day-old age cap such as the one agreed to in Nebraska.

Every state has a safe-haven law, which is meant to prevent infants from being dumped or abandoned in dangerous places by mothers who don't want them.

The Nebraska law has had "serious, unintended consequences," Heineman said. "This law needs to be changed to focus on infants."

The rash of drop-offs included a child from Iowa and a Michigan child who was driven from there by his mother. The events put Nebraska in the type of national spotlight that makes politicians wince. "Saturday Night Live" poked fun at the state this past weekend.

Asked about the attention, Todd Landry, an official with the state's Department of Health and Human Services, replied: "Decisions we make are based on good public policy, not a 'Saturday Night Live' skit."

Heineman stuck by previous comments that he would prefer not to call a special session to immediately change the law before the regular session starts in January. But he provided a clue about what it would take for him to change his mind.

"If circumstances dictate, particularly if we have several more from out of state, I won't hesitate to make that call" for a special session, Heineman said.

Should Heineman not call a special session, Flood said, lawmakers would quickly change the law, probably within the first couple weeks of the session.

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 for parents and guardians.

The United Way operates the help line, which can be reached by calling 211. If there is a flood of calls, up to $200,000 in state money could be used to provide more phone lines.

The state is also sending letters to all adoptive parents and guardians of children who are former state wards. The letter provides phone numbers, including 211, and Web sites of agencies that can help them if they are having problems with their children.

The letter does not mention that Nebraska has a safe-haven law.
By Associated Press Writer Nate Jenkins
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