Nebraska to Alter Safe-Haven Law
State Hopes to Care for Abandoned Children Without Becoming a Dumping Ground

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

OMAHA -- When social worker Courtney Anderson got the urgent call, she knew another child was being abandoned to the state. She spotted a boy, 12 years old, sobbing in a chair at the emergency room registration desk.

Standing behind him was a woman, also crying.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the woman told the boy over and over.

"Please don't leave me," he begged.

Anderson introduced herself and began asking the woman the boy's name, his address and school, but the woman said she was in a hurry. She got ready to leave and hugged the boy, who asked through his tears, "Will you come see me?"

"I will if I can," the woman said and ran out the door.

When Nebraska legislators passed a bill creating a safe haven to help overwhelmed parents and guardians, they were thinking of babies and toddlers who had been abandoned by young mothers. Instead, 35 children -- typically adolescents -- have been dropped at the hospital door, most recently a 5-year-old boy on Thursday night.

The legislature opened a special session on Friday to fix the law. Discussion is expected to begin Monday to set an upper age limit of days or weeks for parents to deliver babies to the state without repercussions.

By next weekend, the old law probably will be history, but the unexpected images of adults from half a dozen states dumping their kids in Nebraska has revealed a largely hidden crisis across the country.

"They'll close the books, but they'll still be dealing with the same issues," said Tom Rawlings, the state children's advocate in Georgia, home of Tysheema Brown, who drove 15 hours to drop her 12-year-old in Lincoln. She later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I ran out of fight. I ran out of hope. I never ran out of love for my child."

"Looking back, a number of us would have voted differently," Sen. Mike Flood (R), the speaker of the Nebraska legislature. "But it has uncovered a bigger issue. It demonstrates a need for families in crisis."

In Nebraska, the adults who dropped children on the doorsteps of hospitals and police stations typically told social workers they were at wit's end. In some cases, they blamed stress in their own lives. In other cases, they said the child had become depressed or uncontrollable.

Courtney Anderson and her seven fellow emergency room social workers at Omaha's Immanuel Medical Center have seen 11 children surrendered to state custody. They found children who had no idea that they were being turned over to the state.

"I'll go in and say, 'Do you know why you're here?' " Anderson, 29, explained in her first interview with a reporter. "If they don't know, I'll say, 'We don't know all the details of what's going on, but you're safe.'

"We offer them a blanket, something to eat and turn the TV on."

The reactions from the teenagers vary.

"I'm struck by the ones who say they are fine," Anderson said. "I've had some say, 'I don't want to go home. Just admit me. Get me a bed.' "

One of the first children she met was a preteen who arrived with his mother late at night after traveling from a far corner of the state. The mother was crying. She told Anderson that she felt guilty but had tried everything else.

It was on the long drive that she told the boy what was happening. She made sure to carry the boy's medications, and she stayed for several hours to be sure that hospital staff members, the police and state officials knew his history.

"She said, 'I hope you will put him with someone who will treat him really well.' "

Troubled children and the children of struggling parents continually cycle in and out of state custody, foster homes and juvenile courts across the country. Nebraska alone oversees 6,600 children who are wards of the state, said Jeanne Atkinson, a spokeswoman at Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the first 30 children abandoned in Nebraska, 27 had received mental health services; 28 came from single-parent homes; and 22 had a parent or guardian who had been jailed.

Twenty of the children were white, nine black and one Native American.

Children dropped off under the safe-haven law are passed along to the family court system, where judges seek solutions. More than half are now wards of the state, either in Nebraska or in their home states, Atkinson said.

Beginning Sept. 13, a total of 24 parents or guardians dropped off one child each, ranging in age from 5 to 17. One woman abandoned two children, but one of them fled before police arrived.

On Sept. 24, a man surrendered nine of his 10 children. He said his wife had died last year and he could not raise them alone.

Two days later, Nebraska children and family services director Todd A. Landry appealed to adults to try other options. He said the safe-haven law was designed to protect "helpless children" in immediate danger, such as "an infant who is left outside or unattended."

"It was not intended," Landry said, "for those having difficult parenting older youth who may be defiant, unruly or who have behavior problems."

But word of the law was spreading, even getting a mention on "Saturday Night Live" in October when comedian Seth Meyers said the law "allows parents to abandon their children without fear of prosecution -- or what is known in Manhattan as a boarding school." The show was widely watched that night, with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a featured guest.

All states have some version of a safe-haven law for infants, but Nebraska's experience has delivered two lessons, experts said. The first is that families need services, such as respite care and psychiatric attention, before their lives reach a crisis point. The second is that the services need to be widely known and accessible.

"We all make it somewhat difficult for people to get these services. We do have to do a better job of making sure we're engaging parents," said Rawlings, a former juvenile court judge in Georgia.

One drop-off came Wednesday, when a Florida man left his 11-year-old son at Boys Town National Research Hospital. Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services said one of its employees will accompany the boy on his return trip to Florida, where he will be placed in the custody of that state's Department of Children and Families.

Legislators intend to have a new law ready for Gov. Dave Heineman (R) to sign by Friday, said Flood, who described himself as "committed to looking at the bigger issue" when the legislature opens a new session in January.

"What I really believe has occurred here in Nebraska is a wake-up call to this nation that there are families who are living in incredible desperation," said Wayne Sensor, chief executive of Alegent Health, where Anderson works. "These are not parents or guardians who are taking an easy way out. These are people who simply do not know what else to do."

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.

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