The Nebraska Legislature today closed a loophole in a controversial law that allowed parents to abandon their children at hospitals.
By a 43-5 vote, the unicameral Legislature amended its safe-haven law to only apply to infants up to 30 days old. Previously the law applied to all minors up to 18 years. Gov. Dave Heineman signed the emergency bill at 1:30 p.m. CST and it takes effect Saturday.
Since Nebraska’s law went into effect in September, 35 children have been abandoned, mostly age 11 or older. Many were left by parents such as Melyssa Cowburn, who said they had no other way to get help for their troubled children.
First, Cowburn’s 5-year-old child tried to bash in a baby’s head with a hammer. Then he set the shower curtain on fire. The next day he plugged all the sinks and toilets in their apartment and flooded the place.
Cowburn and her husband had tried unsuccessfully to get their insurance company to pay for mental health treatment for the boy. The difficulty she had keeping him under control had already helped drive her to attempt suicide last year. Now she felt she had only one option: She flew with her child to Nebraska last week and tearfully left him there.
This state has become notorious for being the one place in the country with a law whose wording allows parents to abandon children up to age 18. Its unique safe-haven law was intended to let parents leave unwanted infants at hospitals without legal consequences.
The Nebraska Legislature spent this week in a special session, frantically trying to revise the law.
But children’s advocates as well as parents such as Cowburn say the state has done nothing to address the problem exposed by the safe-haven law: desperate families quietly struggling to raise mentally ill children with little help from the government. “There are parents like me who really need help,” Cowburn said. “I don’t know how to help him. I don’t know what else to do.”
Nebraska’s Legislature has vowed to address the problem when it meets for its regular session in January. On Thursday, it created a special committee to formulate proposals during the next two months.
“It has been a blessing in disguise,” state Sen. Amanda McGill, who chairs the committee, said of the response to the safe-haven law. “It has brought to light a serious problem.”
“These parents were at wit’s end,” McGill said. “People don’t want to give up their kids. They just want to get them help.”
The administration of Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, which faces a potential budget deficit next year, has been cool to the suggestion that the flood of abandoned children shows a need to patch holes in the state’s safety net. Todd Landry, head of the state’s child welfare agency, said 75% of the Nebraska children were receiving some type of assistance from the government.
“We really want to emphasize to our families: Don’t quit,” Landry said. “I know that’s really hard for families. These are frustrating situations. . . . It can take many tries before a treatment works.”
Every state has a safe-haven law, intended to allow mothers who might otherwise abandon unwanted babies in unsafe places to legally leave them at hospitals. Nebraska became the last state to adopt such a policy when it passed its bill in February. Unlike in other states, however, lawmakers did not set an age limit for abandoned children.
The bill’s supporters say they could not have anticipated what happened when it went into effect. On Sept. 13, two boys, 11 and 15, were dropped off by two families at hospitals in Omaha and Lincoln. The parents said each child had behavioral problems; one family feared the boy was in a violent gang but said child-welfare workers told the family they could not take him unless he committed a crime.
Soon the numbers snowballed. Gary Staton, a father of 10, left nine of his children at an Omaha hospital after his wife died. A few children arrived from other states. Teri Martin drove her 13-year-old adopted son from Michigan to leave him in Omaha in hopes of scaring him straight. Child-welfare officials in Michigan said the boy appeared to have been abused, and they removed Martin’s three other children from her home.
The abandoned children were generally placed in foster homes or with relatives, though a few have required full-time residential treatment.
Some parents say it has been the only way to ensure that their child gets help.
Lavennia Coover’s insurance covered only short hospital stays for her 11-year-old son, who has bipolar disorder. Despairing of getting help from the state in her rural northern Nebraska town, she trekked to Omaha last month and left her son at a hospital there.
“I am tired of being labeled a bad parent by people in power who have no idea what my life is like in my home,” Coover told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee this week.
Children’s advocates have long complained that Nebraska does not give adequate support to troubled youth. Its spending on child care and mental health is among the lowest in the nation, and its rate of foster care placement among the highest.
“This is not just something that’s come up lately,” said state Sen. Gwen Howard, a former state Health and Human Services case manager. “This is like a tsunami that’s been building.”
Kathy Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, pointed out that many who used the law were adoptive parents or guardians who took in children abandoned by biological parents. She said the state had no programs to provide help to parents who frequently deal with traumatized children.
About four years ago, a crack addict in a North Carolina Wal-Mart handed her 16-month-old son to Melyssa Cowburn and promised to return after buying diapers. When the woman didn’t come back, Cowburn — herself adopted — became the boy’s guardian.
“I was 24,” said Cowburn, who asked that the boy not be named in this article. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to love this little guy, and it’s just going to make everything better.’ ”
That wasn’t the case. The child screamed for hours on end and kicked at her. As he grew, he learned how to rip molding off doorways in their rented houses and stab Cowburn’s cat. He was routinely expelled from day-care programs for violence.
Cowburn said she took him to a hospital after one violent episode, and doctors diagnosed him with reactive attachment disorder, a rare condition that warps a child’s personal relationships and stems from early abandonment. She later learned that the boy’s birth mother was schizophrenic.
Cowburn’s husband, Adam, an ex-Marine, rejoined the military to pay for the child’s medications. He was deployed to Afghanistan last year. Melyssa Cowburn returned to Omaha, where her mother lives. At wit’s end, she swallowed prescription pills one night and was rushed to the hospital. Her 79-year-old mother was unable to care for the boy while Cowburn recovered. The child was placed into Nebraska foster care for several months.
The state said the child seemed to improve, but Cowburn said he simply returned with a new roster of curse words. Cowburn’s husband was deployed to Washington state, where the couple struggled to get insurance to cover medications. Social workers there said they could not take the child unless the parents were abusing him.
In despair after the assault on a friend’s infant, the fire and the flood, Cowburn took her boy back to Omaha and drove him to Immanuel Medical Center the night of Nov. 13. She told him she was taking him to the hospital so he could get better.
“Maybe,” the child said, according to Cowburn, “you can find a little boy who’s better.”
“I don’t want anyone better,” Cowburn said. “I want you.”
She cried the entire drive back to her mother’s home.
Riccardi is a Times staff writer.
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