Nebraska Clarifies its ‘Safe Haven’ Law

Published January 1, 2009

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) has approved a measure addressing unintended consequences of the state’s “safe haven” law, passed in July 2008, which made it possible for parents to abandon children of any age at state hospitals without legal repercussions.

The new law, signed November 21, allows the abandonment of children no more than 30 days old. The fix had been approved by a 43-5 vote of Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature during a special session called by Heineman.

Entire Families Abandoned

Though the law’s original intent was to provide a safeguard for unwanted Nebraska newborns, it had been stretched by parents not only in Nebraska but around the country. Children from California, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan had been dropped off at Nebraska hospitals.

Some parents dropped off not just one, but all, of their children. In an instance reported by The Associated Press, a man dropped off his family of nine at an Omaha hospital, saying his wife had died and he “no longer knew how to care for them.”

Published reports say three dozen children, most of them teenagers and none of them newborns, were dropped off under the law. At press time, state courts were considering what to do with the children.

“Many disturbed teens were made wards of the state under the old law,” explained Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute. But Todd Landry, head of the state department of health and human services, told The Wall Street Journal other legal mechanisms exist to accomplish that. He added the state has no access to special services not already available to parents.

Intentionally Vague

Nebraska had been the last of the 50 states to adopt some version of a safe haven law. When drafting the original measure, members of Nebraska’s state legislature disagreed on what age limit to set. As a result, the law simply included the word “child” and offered no legal definition of the term.

The vague wording made the Nebraska law unique among the states’ safe haven laws, as all the others specify an age cutoff, generally no more than one month old. The measures are aimed at protecting defenseless infants from abandonment, allowing mothers who cannot support their newborn children to give them away without facing charges of neglect.

Katie Flanigan ([email protected]) writes from Georgia.