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Nebraska's safe-haven law allows abandonment of teens

OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska's new safe-haven law allowing parents to abandon unwanted children at hospitals with no questions asked is unique in a significant way: It goes beyond babies and potentially permits the abandonment of anyone younger than 19.

While lawmakers may not have intended it, the month-old law raises the possibility that frustrated parents could drop off misbehaving teens or even severely disabled older children with impunity.

"Whether the kid is disabled or unruly or just being a hormonal teenager, the state is saying: 'Hey, we have a really easy option for you,' " said Adam Pertman, executive director of a New York adoption institute and a frequent critic of safe-haven laws.

Nebraska's approach is surprising because it is the last state in the nation to adopt a safe-haven law. But instead of following the lead of other states, which focus on the abandonment of newborns, lawmakers wanted to extend the protection to all minors. In Nebraska, that goes all the way up to age 19.

"All children deserve our protection," said Sen. Tom White, who helped broaden the law.

White said it doesn't matter if that child is an infant or 3 years old or in the care of a parent or babysitter.

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman introduced the original bill, dealing only with infants, and agreed to the compromise after the bill became stalled in debate.

Pertman, who directs the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said his research going back several years shows safe-haven laws are not accomplishing what they intended. Women who are distressed enough to want to abandon their children are not the ones getting the message about these laws, he said.

Florida's law, passed in 2000, was recently expanded to allow mothers to leave babies up to 7 days old, instead of 3 days, without fear of criminal prosecution.

• Permits the abandonment of anyone younger than 19, raising the prospect that people could drop off unruly teens or disabled older children.

• Technically allows anyone, not just a parent, to surrender custody legally. Most other states narrowly define the role of the person surrendering the child.

• Does not absolve people of possible criminal charges — for example, if a child has been beaten.

• Some hospitals have fielded questions from the public about the law, but no children have been dropped off. The law took effect July 18.

• Lawmakers acknowledge that the courts will have to sort out the details and have said they are open to revisiting the legislation if necessary.

>>Fast facts

Nebraska's law

Nebraska's safe-haven law allows abandonment of teens 08/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 10:51pm]
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