Teens Among Children Abandoned at Nebraska Hospitals

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Nebraski legislators are considering changing the state's recently enacted "safe haven" law designed to save newborns after some unexpected results: parents abandoning their adolescent and teenage children.

Fifteen older children have been abandoned at Nebraska hospitals in the past month.  In a single incident on Sept. 24, an out-of-work widower left nine of his children, ranging in age from 1 to 17, at Creighton Medical Center in Omaha, police said. His oldest child, a daughter who is 18,  was not dropped off.

The children's father, Gary Staton, told KETV-TV in Omaha he was overwhelmed without his wife, who died last year, quit his job because of his family responsibilities, and couldn't afford rent or care for his children.

No charges have been filed against Staton. But officials also said it was the second time, Nebraska social services has been involved with the family.  The children were under its supervision for several months beginning in 2006 after their house was found filthy and without food.

Some child advocates said the law has exposed the lack of services for parents of older, troubled children.  Others argued the parents didn't seek help or were dissatisifed with the assistance.

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman originally introduced the bill to protect infants, but agreed to expand protection after the bill stalled in debate. "The law in my opinion is being abused now,” said Stuthman told The New York Times. He said he would push for a revision.

“There are family services out there, but some people may lack the resources to take advantage of them, and we’ve got to take a hard look at what more we can provide,” Stuthman said.

Once a child is left at a hospital, police put them in protective custody. The Staton children were placed temporarily with relatives, but a juvenile judge has ordered seven into foster care.  The state objects to that placement as not in the best interest of the children and officials said they plan to appeal. 

Safe haven laws exist primarily to give parents an alternate to aborting or discarding  their newborn children by allowing them to abandon them at licensed facilities, where custody is transferred to the state.

Nebraska is the last state in the nation to adopt a "safe haven" law but other states have stricter rules on who can be abandoned.The Nebraska law went into effect on July 18.

Approximately 15 states allow infants who are 72 hours or younger to be abandoned, while 14 other states accept infants up to one month old, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Other states have varying age limits on how old a child can be abandoned. The Nebraska law allows children up to the age of 19 to be  abandoned legally.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reminded parents in a Sept. 26 news release  that leaving a child at a hospital doesn't terminate parental rights. While the parents can't be charged with abandoning their child, they can be charged with other offenses.

"If abuse or neglect is uncovered that occurred before the child was turned over to a hospital, County Attorneys do have the option of filing charges," said Todd Landry, director of the Division of Children and Family Services in DHHS.

To help reunite children with their families, parents may be required to attend parenting classes and pay for child support during the time the child spends in state care, Landry said.

Landry said he is  in favor of modifying the law to focus on infants who are in immediate danger of being harmed.