Between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Wednesday, three fathers walked into two hospitals in Omaha and abandoned their children. One left nine siblings, ages 1 to 17.
The men, unless proven to have abused the kids, won’t face prosecution under a new Nebraska law that is unique in the nation. The law allows parents to leave a child at a licensed hospital without explaining why.
Other parents have also used the law to leave their children. Last week, a 13-year-old girl was left. The week before that, two boys ages 11 and 15. In all, fathers, mothers and caregivers in six families — some single parents — have bailed on 14 kids, including seven teens, since the law took effect in July.
“They were tired of their parenting role,” says Todd Landry of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services. He says child behavioral problems, not family financial woes, were a factor in the earlier cases. He says little is known about the three new cases, which are under investigation.
None of the kids was in immediate danger, Landry says. He says the four oldest of the nine siblings were placed together in an emergency shelter and the others in a foster home. “They’re struggling to varying degrees with what’s happened to them.”
Landry says the courts will decide whether to require the parents to pay child support or to try to reunite them with their children.
“This was never the intent of the bill,” says Republican state Sen. Arnie Stuthman. He says he co-wrote it to protect newborns from abandonment, but to get enough support for passage, it was changed to cover all children.
“We really opened a can of worms,” he says. “We have a mess.” He says the law needs to be fixed.
All 50 states have “safe haven” laws, but the others apply only to infants less than 1 year old.
The Nebraska law is the “worst-case scenario of unintended consequences,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group. He says it allows parents to walk out on troublesome teens.
“We don’t endorse the way it was done,” says Tracey Johnson of the National Safe Haven Alliance.