- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) | Gov. Dave Heineman signed into law Friday a bill adding an age limit to a safe-haven law that allowed 35 children - including teenagers as old as 17 - to be abandoned at state hospitals.

The law was meant to prevent newborns from being dumped in trash bins or worse by letting desperate mothers abandon them at state hospitals with no questions asked. But it has been used to abandon 35 children since July - many of them preteens or teenagers as old as 17. Hospital officials have described children crying hysterically as they pleaded with their parents not to leave them.

The law, approved hours earlier by the Legislature in a 45-3 vote, goes into effect Saturday, and makes Nebraska the 14th state that caps the ability to abandon a child at 30 days after birth. It had been the only state with a safe-haven law without an age limit.

“I think this solves the immediate problem of adolescents being abandoned,” said state Sen. Kent Rogert. “These kids are old enough to know they’re being dropped off, and that’s not good.”

Five of the children have been from other states, including from as far away as Florida and Michigan. The law was not revised to preclude infants from other states from being dropped off. But Mr. Heineman said the age limit still should keep Nebraska from becoming a dumping ground for children from out of state and will refocus the law on lawmakers’ original intent - to protect newborns.

Parents and guardians who have dropped off the youths have said they have done so because they thought they had nowhere else to turn.

None of the children dropped off were infants - a point some child-welfare advocates and others have said shows of a lack of public services to help troubled older youths.

Lawmakers have vowed to address the issue during the regular legislative session, which convenes in January, and have formed a task force to forge recommendations. State officials deny there is a lack of services and have said some of the children were unnecessarily abandoned.

Most of the children got help under Medicaid, the vast majority have received mental health services in the past, and only one of the 30 children from Nebraska has required intensive treatment since being dropped off, state officials said.

Mr. Heineman softened the state’s position a bit Friday but is not completely convinced that there is a problem.

“We may have a gap in services, but that’s something we need to evaluate. We will cooperate fully with the committee,” he said of the new legislative task force.

While there is an outcry by some lawmakers and child-welfare experts for the state to fix a safety net they say is broken, some question how much government can do to solve the problems.

“There are going to be things beyond our reach,” state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh said. “The government can’t replace a parent.”

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