Nebraska's Safe Haven Law Questioned

MaryLee Allen, Director of Child Welfare and Mental Health for the Children's Defense Fund.
In the past decade, all 50 states have passed some kind of "safe haven" law that permits the parents or guardians of newborns to turn over children to the state by literally dropping them off at a hospital or a police station.

The movement has saved more than 1,000 children, according to the National Safe Haven Alliance. But when Nebraska became the last state to adopt a safe haven law this year, it led to some unintended consequences, reports CBS News correspondent Kelly Wallace.

The flurry of young children - and teenagers - dropped off at hospitals and police stations caught Nebraska officials by surprise, 18 since the law took effect three months ago. One overwhelmed Nebraska widower dropped off nine kids ranging from 20 months to 17-years-old. Then, grandparents of a 14-year-old from Iowa and a Michigan mother of an adopted 13-year-old left the children at Omaha hospitals.

"The law needs to be changed," says Todd Landry, director of the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services. "We need to get back to the intent of the law, and the intent of the law was always the protection of newborns in immediate danger of being harmed."

Nebraska's safe haven law is the only one in the nation that doesn't set an age limit. For example, 15 states accept infants up to 3-days-old. Fourteen states set the age limit at one-month-old, and only two states accept children up to a year old.

"These were laws that were put in place to try and prevent infanticide and to address the tragedies where a parent feels she has no alternative but to abandon her child in a trash can," says Mary Lee Allen, of the Children's Defense Fund.

But the laws don't always prevent those tragedies, Wallace reports. One week ago in Maryland, a day-old baby was discovered in a black bag abandoned in a field. She died.

Safe haven laws generally promise parents or guardians anonymity and no criminal charges, as long as the child hasn't been abused. The head of child welfare in New Jersey, where infants up to a month old are accepted, says those rules are essential.

"Our motto is 'no shame, no blame, no names'," says Kimberly Ricketts, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. "Since enactment of the law in August of 2000, we have had 37 safe surrenders."

In Nebraska, state legislators are planning to amend the law.

"We need to look at, you know, what we can do for these older children other than having them dropped off at the hospital," says Arnie Stuthman, a state senator.

Child advocates say government can provide more services for families without health insurance or whose insurance lacks mental health coverage.

"These are children with serious behavioral and emotional problems who need mental health treatment," Allen said. "One out of five children in this country has an unmet mental health need, and about only one in five of those children get any sort of treatment."

Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services says 16 of the dropped off children remain in state custody and are receiving a variety of treatment in foster care and other residential settings.