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Father drops off 9 kids under safe haven law

Associated Press, September 25, 2008

OMAHA, Neb. - Eleven children ranging in age from 1 to 17 were left at hospitals Wednesday under Nebraska's unique safe haven law, which allows caregivers to abandon youngsters up to age 19 without fear of prosecution.

Nine of the children came from one family. The five boys and four girls were left by their father, who was not identified, at Creighton University Medical Center's emergency room. Unrelated boys ages 11 and 15 also were surrendered Wednesday at Immanuel Medical Center.

The law, which went into effect in July, initially was intended to protect infants. In a compromise with senators worried about arbitrary age limits, the measure was expanded to include the word "child," which wasn't defined. Some have interpreted this to mean anyone under the age of 19.

At least 16 children have been abandoned since the law took effect, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Two of those cases don't fall under the safe haven law because one child was left at a police station and one child's age wasn't covered by the law.

Todd Landry, director of Health and Human Services' division of Children and Family Services, said that in nearly every case, the parents who left their children felt overwhelmed and had decided they didn't want to be parents anymore. None of the kids dropped off so far have been in danger, he said.

"It was the parents not wanting to continue the journey with their kids," Landry said Thursday at a news conference in Lincoln.

The department was still investigating Wednesday's drop-offs. The abandoned siblings were in no danger and it wasn't clear why their father gave them up, Landry said.

Five of the nine siblings were placed in a foster home and the rest were taken to an emergency shelter, he said. The department was working on a new arrangement that would keep the kids together.

In the other cases on Wednesday, one child was temporarily placed in foster care and the other was in the hospital for evaluation.

Youngsters abandoned under the safe haven law are generally placed in protective custody while the courts decide where the child should live.

Parental rights don't end automatically but parents who change their mind about abandonment may find it difficult to regain custody. A county attorney may determine that a child should be allowed to return home, Landry said.

Nebraska was the last state in the nation to adopt a safe-haven law. Under previous law, a parent who abandoned a baby could have been charged with child neglect or abandonment, both misdemeanors, or child abuse, a felony.

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman said he introduced the bill intending to protect infants. In a compromise with senators worried about arbitrary age limits, the measure was expanded.

"Abandoning teenagers was not the original intent of the law", Stuthman said Thursday.

"People are leaving them off just because they can't control them," he said. "They're probably in no real danger, so it's an easy way out for the caretaker."

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