Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Time: Defending Nebraska's Child Abandonment Law

By Karen Ball / Lincoln

Nebraska never wanted the attention that came with the heart-wrenching reports of sobbing children at hospitals and desperate parents leaving kids, little ones and unruly teenagers alike, under the state's new "safe haven" law. "We were being ridiculed every day," says state Sen. Dianna Schimek of Lincoln, "but I have no apologies because something good will come of this. We uncovered something that we need to address. And it's not just Nebraska — it's widespread."

The Nebraska Legislature's Judiciary Committee met in a special session Monday to begin rewriting a law that has resulted in an epidemic of abandoned children — some parents driving from Florida, Arizona and Georgia to leave off their problem kids. Most states allow a parent to leave an infant at a fire station or hospital without fear of prosecution, but because Nebraska's law did not define "child," 34 kids have been dropped off at Omaha hospitals since September. None were infants. The rest of America was stunned. But, as the special session proceeded, some legislators defended the intent of the law.

While Gov. Dave Heineman is pushing to limit a rewritten law to newborns of 72 hours, some lawmakers argue the abandonments have exposed an urgent need to fix gaping holes in state mental health services, which they claim fail to assist families with little resources to help problem children. Sen. Annette Dubas introduced an alternate bill that would retain "safe haven" for parents with kids age one to 15 through June 2009, so that the Legislature could address the broader issues come January. "Do not forget those struggling families," she urged her colleagues.

Some lawmakers were angered at what they see as a callous response from Heineman's administration — that state welfare agents appear to be accusing parents of too easily abdicating responsibility. "It's been very disturbing, how judgmental you've been," Sen. Amanda McGill scolded the state's Health and Human Services chief, Todd Landry. "You've had plenty of time to make these judgmental statements to the press" but not to return phone calls from desperate parents, she said. Landry argued that the state offers many lifelines, that services are available. "So all a parent has to do is call a hotline?" Sen. Steve Lathrop asked skeptically. "What is the harm," he asked repeatedly, of allowing distraught parents to bring older kids in?

But the voices that appear to have won the day were those of the abandoned. "I'll be good — I'll be good, I promise," one child begged as the mother walked away, Ann Schaumacher of Immanuel Hospital in Omaha told the Judiciary Committee. "It is not the right place for relinquishment to occur," Schaumacher said of the emergency room abandonments. Some hardened adolescents show no emotion at all, she recalled. An older teen was left by a mother who simply said, "I can't do it anymore." "These children will never be the same, and that's the tragedy of this law," said Schaumacher, who, like most hospital representatives, argues that the law should be limited to newborns and infants.

Near the end of a four-hour-plus hearing, Lyman "Scott" Wostrel gave a grown man's choked testimony of the experience of abandonment. His mother gave him up at 14, he said, in urging lawmakers to limit the law to newborns. "It doesn't matter what a person says. The action speaks — I don't love you. Any kid can figure that out," he said.

At the end of the work day, the Judiciary Committee voted to send a measure to the floor of the full unicameral legislature on Tuesday and Wednesday that amended the governor's bill to extend the law to children as old as 30 days. (Some legislators wanted the limit to be as much as a year or more.) Chairman Brad Ashford said he expected vigorous debate and further amendments. A 24-hour cooling off period will then go in effect before a final vote comes Friday.

Even though Governor Heineman is likely to have the law pared back to apply only to infancy, the broader issue of childhood mental illness did have its hearing. A majority of the kids abandoned had a history of mental illness — 90% of the parents or guardians had sought state services for them before. Many had at least one parent in jail. One big hole in the safety net, said Dr. Jane Theobald, an Omaha psychiatrist and representative for the Nebraska Psychiatric Association, is that there are simply not enough facilities for troubled youngsters. A teenager who attempts suicide might stay at a general medical hospital for days, waiting for an opening in a mental health facility that may or may not come. "I've sent kids out of state or four hours away for a bed. That's typical, not the exception."

Lawmakers sympathetic to the parents and guardians of older, troubled children note that Omaha is, after all, home to the original Boys Town of Father Flanagan fame. In the city, there's a statue of one young boy carrying another on his back, with the words chiseled underneath, "He ain't heavy, Father, he's m' brother." During the Great Depression, parents would scrape together bus fare and hang a sign, "Take Me to Boys Town,' around their child's neck. Tysheema Brown, the Atlanta woman who drove 1,000 miles to Omaha to drop off her 12-year-old son, had been taken to Boys Town herself as a teenager. She had tried to get a spot for him in a similar Georgia institution for six months and failed. On that long drive she reportedly told her son what was happening; she reasoned later he would not hate her because she believes she is sparing him from a jail cell.

Father Steven Boes, president of Boys Town, didn't bother to attend Monday's hearing because he thinks little can be done on the big issues of mental health. He says he'll be back in Lincoln in January "to strike while the iron is hot" when legislators are scheduled to debate privatizing behavioral services for troubled adolescents. Meanwhile, Boes had good news for Tysheema Brown. The priest said he's working with Georgia alumni to get her housing and find her son a spot, hopefully in Omaha.

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