Nebraska's Abandoned-Kid Law

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Nati Harnik / AP

Protesters of Nebraska's safe-haven law hold signs in front of the Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha on Oct. 16

On July 18, 2008, Nebraska became the last state to institute a "safe haven law," decriminalizing the act of abandoning an infant at a state hospital. Only five lines long, the law had one glaring omission — the government never defined an age limit. Since July, 30 children, most of them teens or preteens, have been abandoned at Nebraska hospitals. Four children were even driven from other states and left by their parents. Oddly enough, the law has had no effect on those it attempted to protect: no infants have been abandoned yet.

The Nebraska state legislature will convene in a special emergency session on Nov. 14 to revise the safe haven law; they are expected to limit the age to babies under three days old. TIME talks to Todd Landry, director of child and family services for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services about the law and its unintended consequences.

Why did the Nebraska state legislature neglect to define the world "child?"
They didn't neglect it, they just never decided on it. Safe haven laws were instituted in the 1990s to deal with the problem of parents who were abandoning their babies and leaving them essentially for dead in dumpsters, alleyways, or restrooms. The laws were really designed as a mechanism for these overwhelmed new parents to get their kids to a safe place right after they were born. They were always designed for newborns and infants.

Our legislators, though, were uncomfortable trying to pick a specific age, so they decided to leave the term "child" undefined. Unfortunately that had the unintended consequence of preteens and teenagers being left.

What happens to the kids when they're left at the hospital?
One thing to keep in mind is that this law solely protects the person who leaves the child from criminal prosecution, and only for the act of leaving the child at the hospital. It does not mean that they no longer are involved in the process. That's a misconception that's sometimes out there. Parents and guardians still will be involved in the juvenile court process for the kids that come into our system.

Really? Because I pictured a mom driving up to a hospital dropping off her kid and saying, "That's it, I'm done."
No, nothing could be further from the truth. They may be ordered to provide services, ordered to participate in family therapy, and they may be ordered to pay child support. Parental rights are not terminated or ended when they leave the child at the hospital.

So what happens from the child's point of view?
When the child is left at the hospital law enforcement is immediately notified. They will go to the hospital, they will place the child in 48-hour custody, and then they transfer the child to the Dept. of Health and Human Services. Then we look [to place them in] a relative's home first because it's someone that they already have a relationship with. If not, we go with a foster home. Most of the kids are in foster homes. Then it's a regular court process in juvenile court. The parents no longer have sole determination about what's going to happen to the child. They will be involved but now the judge will ultimately decide what happens to these kids.

What is the emotional difference between dropping of a baby and dropping off an older child?
When a newborn or infant is abandoned in a hospital, there's a good chance that it isn't going to remember the experience. There's not going to be any significant consequences over the life of that child. However, when a teenager or a preteen is left at a hospital and abandoned in that way, they understand exactly what is going on. There is an extra level of trauma that is endured.

On Nov. 14, the Nebraska legislature is meeting to change the safe haven law so that it only applies to babies younger than 3 days old. How soon will that change occur?
As soon as the governor signs the bill it will immediately become law and go into effect. The soonest it will happen will be November 21, one week after the session convenes. At that point, if a person leaves a child who is outside the age limit, then that person can be criminally prosecuted for the abandonment of that child.

What can you recommend to parents struggling with their children?
Get the help that you need. Reach out to your family your friends your faith community. If you don't know where to turn, call 211, or the Boys Town National Hotline. Then go the next step. Follow up. Don't quit. Continue to work with your kid with counseling and therapy. Maybe it's your own parenting skills that need help. But continue to reach out to get the help that you need. That's what's healthy. That's what our children need and that's what we certainly want people to be doing.