World and Nation

Nebraska’s Safe Haven Law Becomes License to Abandon

The abandonments began Sept. 1, when a mother left her 14-year-old son in a police station here.

By Sept. 23, two more boys and one girl, ages 11-14, had been abandoned in hospitals in Omaha and Lincoln. Then a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl were left.

The biggest shock to public officials came last week, when a single father walked into an Omaha hospital and surrendered nine of his 10 children, ages 1 to 17, saying that his wife had died and he could no longer cope with the burden of raising them.

In total last month, 15 older children in Nebraska were dropped off by a beleaguered parent or custodial aunt or grandmother who said the children were unmanageable.

Officials have called the abandonments a misuse of a new law that was mainly intended to prevent so-called Dumpster babies — the abandonment of newborns by young, terrified mothers — but instead has been used to hand off out-of-control teenagers or, in the case of the father of 10, to escape financial and personal despair.

The spate of abandonments has prompted an outcry about parental irresponsibility and pledges to change the state law, which allows care givers to drop off children without fear of prosecution. But it has also cast a spotlight on the hidden extent of family turmoil around the country and what many experts say is a shortage of respite care, counseling and especially psychiatric services to help parents in dire need.

Some who work with troubled children add that economic conditions, like stagnant low-end wages and the epidemic of foreclosures, may make the situation worse, adding layers of worry and conflict.

“I have no doubt that there are additional stresses today on families who were already on the margin,” said Gary Stangler, director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative in St. Louis, which aids foster children entering adulthood.

Mark Courtney, an expert on child welfare at the University of Washington, said that what happened in Nebraska “would happen in any state.”

“These days there’s a huge void in services for helping distressed families,” Courtney said.

When children are abused or neglected, they can be taken by the child-welfare system, and possibly enter foster care. When they commit crimes, they enter the juvenile justice system. In both cases, children and parents are supposed to receive counseling and other aid.

But when troubled children do not fit those categories, they often fall through the cracks, Courtney said. Even middle-income families with health insurance often have only paltry coverage for psychiatric services and cannot afford intensive or residential treatment programs. The poorest, on Medicaid, often have trouble finding therapists who will take the low rates.

And some parents are reluctant to seek whatever help does exist.

Jim Jenkins, a computer network manager in Lincoln, suffered through years with his teenage son, whom he described as “out of control.”