Nebraska legislation to protect newborns is exploited by parents deserting offspring of all ages as social workers question system.
Children abandoned as new law backfires
DENVER // One woman abandoned her bipolar teenager, saying he had attacked her repeatedly. Another blamed her own drug addiction problem when she dropped off her five-year-old son. And in September, a man walked into an Omaha hospital to leave his nine children, aged one to 17. He said he had been overwhelmed since his wife died shortly after the birth of their youngest. The US state of Nebraska is facing an epidemic of child abandonment since legislators there passed a bill allowing parents to leave their children in a hospital without fear of prosecution. The legislation was aimed at protecting newborns of desperate young mothers. However, since it set no age limit on children who could be left, there were unintended consequences. Thirty-four children have been left at hospitals around Nebraska since the law went into effect in July, according to Jean Atkinson, of the department of health and human services. None were newborns, and the majority came from poor, single-parent households. Many have severe mental health problems. In some cases, parents have pretended they were going to the emergency room for a minor injury, and then simply walked off, leaving their children heart-broken and confused. Others said they had tried for months or even years to get help coping with their children, and believed they had exhausted all other options. "I hope they know I love them," said Gary Stanton, the widower who left his nine children at the Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha. Mr Stanton quit his job to focus on childcare after his wife died, but decided to abandon his family when he could not make ends meet on state welfare cheques. "I fell apart and couldn't take care of them," he told reporters in Omaha. "I hope their future is better without me around." Five children left in Nebraska hospitals came from out of state, one brought from as far away as Florida. "This speaks of a nationwide problem for families," said Jody Hudson, a spokesman for Alegent Health, which owns three hospitals in Omaha where 14 children have been abandoned. "We are seeing people getting in cars and planes to come here and get help." Last Monday, Nebraska legislators met in an emergency session in Omaha to revise the bill. They are expected to pass a measure soon that will insert an age limit of 30 days in the law. Social workers and health care experts are calling on the legislature to go further, saying the Safe Haven bill laid bare gaping holes in public health and social services. "This has exposed a major crisis," said Kathy Moore, the director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, an advocacy group pushing for wider public health coverage for poor families and mental health patients. "It has brought to life how desperate families aren't getting the social services they need." Although the crisis may be nationwide, Nebraska presents an especially severe case, Ms Moore said. It spends fewer dollars on mental health care than most other US states, and fewer children there are eligible for state health services. "We don't have preventive care or early intervention for children with mental health problems," she said. "And what we find is that if you don't spend the money up front, it costs the state much more money on the back end." Frann Huse, a former case worker for the state who now runs the Family Support Network, a non-governmental organisation that helps families obtain better mental health care support, said state officials routinely turn down requests health professionals make for mentally ill children. "They look at the requests on paper and then don't approve the recommendations," she said. "We hear this story all the time." In lengthy, often painful sessions this month, Nebraska legislators heard evidence from health officials who said they were underfunded, and from the desperate parents who had abandoned children in their custody. Lavennia Coover, who left her violent, bipolar son at a Decatur hospital, said she was tired of being labelled a bad parent after spending years trying to get him affordable treatment. Other parents gathered on the steps outside the state capitol, calling for better-funded public health programmes. An official from the Behavioral Health Coalition told the panel the state's underfunded mental health services were forced to make health decisions based on costs, not needs. "We're whittled down, and now we're into bone," Topher Hansen said. In January, when legislators return to a regular session, health care advocates hope the Save Haven episode will prompt them to approve increased funding for the state. "This whole safe haven issue has opened a whole can of worms," Ms Huse said. "Let's leave it open and see where the problems lie and see how we can help these families." But Ms Moore is not optimistic there will be much change, especially given the current economic downturn. "We have been pushing for additional funding and new laws to protect families for more than a decade. "It is hard to feel hopeful." firstname.lastname@example.org