Stateline Story

Nebraska Enacts Unique Safe Haven Law

Nebraska this year became the last state in the nation to pass a so-called "safe haven" law designed to protect unwanted infants by allowing parents to legally surrender them at a hospital.

But the law, which took effect July 18, is unlike any other. It allows parents to give up a minor of any age - possibly an unruly teenager - instead of just infants.

Passed in February by the state's nonpartisan Legislature, the law specifies that no person can be prosecuted for leaving any child in the custody of any on-duty hospital employee. While other states set a much lower age limit for children to be left under safe haven laws - the oldest is a year in North Dakota - Nebraska law defines a "child" as anyone up to 19 years old.

State Sen. Pete Pirsch, whose compromise amendment eventually became the law, said using the broad language was intentional, because several senators felt strongly that the safe haven protection needed to be extended to all children.

"In my opinion, the need to pass a safe haven bill outweighed the need for perfect language," Pirsch told Stateline.org. "The risk to babies' lives far outweighed the possibility of a few inconvenient circumstances with older children."

Texas passed the first safe haven law in 1999 to protect babies from unsafe abandonment and the possibility of death at the hands of an unfit parent. Since then, safe haven advocates have successfully brought the law to the rest of the nation, with Nebraska and Alaska being the lone holdouts. Both states had safe haven bills signed into law last February, with Nebraska's the last to take effect.

Pirsch said the passage of safe haven bills across the country shows a consensus not often seen in politics.

"It's a clear indication that there are some things that we all agree are critically important," he said. "We love and value the lives of our babies …we will do what it takes to keep them safe and healthy."

Opponents of safe haven laws - mainly adoption rights advocates and child welfare experts - say they are bothered by how easy the laws make it to abandon children. Adam Pertman, head of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York , said the laws can give "impressionable young women" the idea that dumping a child on someone else is a solution.

"Safe havens are where good intentions have gone awry," Pertman said. "The evidence is they have not, and are not, solving the problem they went out to solve."

The appeal of most safe haven laws is that they promise complete anonymity to the mother, said Marley Greiner, executive chair of the adoption rights group Bastard Nation, which has lobbied extensively against safe haven laws. That reaches to the core of the problem, she said, as it encourages pregnant teenage girls not to seek prenatal or postnatal care.

"There has to be education out there that says what kind of help you can get (instead of just abandoning a child)," Grenier said. "We don't want people to stop relinquishing children for adoption, but we want them to do it the right way."

Nebraska state lawmakers had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get a safe haven law passed. Supporters saw the unanimous approval of safe haven laws across the country as an affirmation of the law's ability to deal with the problem of abandoned newborns. But opponents are especially critical of Nebraska 's efforts.

"The law devalues the parental-child relationship," Greiner said. "The law is two sentences long. It's not a simple matter. When you start taking a 5- or 10-year old … you need to get some help somewhere."

State Sen. Arnie Stuthman, sponsor of the Nebraska bill, agreed with Pirsch that including older children was the only way the bill would have passed. Too much protection, he said, is better than nothing at all.

"It's a lot broader than the original [bill]," Stuthman said. "But we were really concerned about newborns. I hope [parents] won't drop off teens." He said the law will be re-evaluated next year, and any issues that arise between now and then will be addressed during the next legislative session.

The time period during which parents can legally abandon their children under other states' safe haven laws varies. In Texas , emergency medical services personnel and child welfare agents can accept infants up to 60 days old. In California , a baby up to 72 hours old can be surrendered to any "safe haven site," which includes hospitals and fire stations. The parent then has two weeks to reclaim the child if he or she has a change of heart.

In Maryland, an updated version of its law, scheduled to take effect this October, allows parents to surrender an infant to a "responsible adult" without prosecution up to 10 days after birth, as long as they don't try to return for the child. The previous law allowed only three days.

Maryland state Sen. Jennie Forehand (D) was one of the bill's sponsors. "It provides more time for troubled parents to make a decision and choose a responsible, safe alternative," she said in an e-mail. "The goal of the original bill was to save the life of a child and the most recent bill improves the chance of doing that."

Even though he opposes safe haven laws, Pertman, of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York , said he understands the idea behind them is to prevent unsafe abandonment. But the Nebraska law runs counter to it, he said.

"That's child abandonment," he said. "If you open the door to that, you open the door to all kinds of unintended consequences. What does that have to do with the problem of infant abandonment?"

Now that every state has a safe haven law, Pertman said it's important to make sure the laws work they way they were intended to. He said his organization will continue to look for ways to improve them.

"We advocate for best practices," Pertman said. "We're going to work to stop the unintended consequences."

He said it's also important for state lawmakers to realize that just because the laws are in place doesn't mean the problem of infant abandonment is solved.

"Declaring victory and moving on isn't the way to do public policy," he said. "It's a done deal; I accept that … (but) we need to not put the issue to rest. We haven't found a complete answer."