Defending Nebraska's Child-Abandonment Law

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Rick Gershon / Getty

Judi Wheeldon of Council Bluffs, Iowa, right, protests Nebraska's safe-haven law with others at the Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha on Oct. 16

Nebraska never wanted the attention that came with the heart-wrenching reports of desperate parents leaving sobbing children at hospitals, including little ones and unruly teenagers, under the state's new safe-haven law. "We were being ridiculed every day," says state senator Dianna Schimek of Lincoln, "but I have no apologies because something good will come of this. We uncovered something that we need to address. And it's not just Nebraska — it's widespread."

The Nebraska legislature's judiciary committee met in a special session on Monday to begin rewriting the law, which has resulted in an epidemic of abandoned children — with some parents driving from Florida, Arizona and Georgia to drop off their problem kids. Most states allow a parent to leave an infant at a fire station or hospital without fear of prosecution, but because Nebraska's law did not define child, 34 kids have been dropped off at Omaha hospitals since September. None were infants. The rest of America was stunned. But, as the special session proceeded, some legislators defended the intent of the law.

While Governor Dave Heineman is pushing to limit the rewritten law to newborns of 72 hours, some lawmakers are saying that the abandonments have exposed an urgent need to fix gaping holes in the state's mental-health services, which they claim fail to assist families with little resources to help problem children. Senator Annette Dubas introduced an alternate bill that would retain a safe haven for parents with kids ages 1 to 15 through June 2009 so that the legislature could address the broader issues come January. "Do not forget those struggling families," she urged her colleagues.

Some lawmakers were angered by what they see as a callous response from Heineman's administration — that state welfare agents appear to be accusing parents of too easily abdicating their responsibilities. "It's been very disturbing, how judgmental you've been," Senator Amanda McGill said to the state's health and human services chief, Todd Landry. "You've had plenty of time to make these judgmental statements to the press" but not to return phone calls from desperate parents, she said. Landry argued that the state offers many lifelines and that services are available. "So all a parent has to do is call a hotline?" Senator Steve Lathrop asked skeptically. "What is the harm," he asked repeatedly, of allowing distraught parents to bring older kids in?

But the voices that appear to have won the day were those of the abandoned. "I'll be good — I'll be good, I promise," one child begged as the mother walked away, Ann Schaumacher of Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha told the judiciary committee. "It is not the right place for relinquishment to occur," she said of the ER abandonments. Some hardened adolescents show no emotion at all, she recalled, citing an older teen who was left by a mother who simply said, "I can't do it anymore." Said Schaumacher: "These children will never be the same, and that's the tragedy of this law." Schaumacher, like most hospital representatives, argues that the law should be limited to newborns and infants.

Near the end of a four-hour-plus hearing, Lyman "Scott" Wostrel gave a grown man's choked testimony of the experience of abandonment. His mother gave him up at 14, he said. "It doesn't matter what a person says. The action speaks: I don't love you. Any kid can figure that out," he said. Wostrel is urging lawmakers to limit the law to newborns.

At the end of the day, the judiciary committee voted to send a measure to the floor of the unicameral legislature on Tuesday that would amend the governor's bill to extend the law to children as old as 30 days. (Some legislators wanted the limit to be a year or more.) Chairman Brad Ashford said he expected vigorous debate and further amendments. A 24-hour cooling-off period will then go into effect before a final vote comes on Friday.

Even though Governor Heineman is likely to accept a law that applies to infancy, the broader issue of childhood mental illness did have its hearing. A majority of the kids abandoned had a history of mental illness — 90% of the parents or guardians had sought state services for them before. Many had at least one parent in jail. One big hole in the safety net, said Dr. Jane Theobald, an Omaha psychiatrist and representative for the Nebraska Psychiatric Association, is that there are simply not enough facilities for troubled youngsters. A teenager who attempts suicide might stay at a general hospital for days, waiting for an opening in a mental-health facility that may or may not come. "I've sent kids out of state or four hours away for a bed," she said. "That's typical, not the exception."

Lawmakers sympathetic to the parents and guardians of older troubled children note that Omaha is, after all, home to the original Boys Town of Father Flanagan fame. In the city, there's a statue of one young boy carrying another on his back, with the words chiseled underneath, "He ain't heavy, Father, he's m' brother." During the Great Depression, parents would scrape together bus fare and hang a sign that read "Take Me to Boys Town" around their child's neck. Tysheema Brown, the Atlanta woman who drove 1,000 miles to Omaha to drop off her 12-year-old son, had been taken to Boys Town herself as a teenager. She had tried to get a spot for him in a similar Georgia institution for six months and failed. During that long drive she reportedly told her son what was happening; she reasoned later that he would not hate her because she believed she was sparing him from a jail cell.

The Rev. Steven Boes, president of Boys Town, didn't bother to attend Monday's hearing because he thinks little can be done on the big issues of mental health. He says he'll be back in Lincoln in January "to strike while the iron is hot" when legislators are scheduled to debate privatizing behavioral health services for troubled adolescents. Meanwhile, Boes had good news for Tysheema Brown. The priest said he's working with Georgia alumni to get her housing and find her son a spot, hopefully in Omaha.

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