[JURIST] The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) [official website] declared Thursday that leaving a child at a hospital does not constitute per se termination of parents' legal rights. Nebraska's safe haven law (LB 157) [PDF text], which went into effect in July, prohibits prosecution when a child is left in a licensed hospital. LB 157 was enacted to protect infants, but the measure was expanded to include the undefined word "child." The director of the DHHS Department of Children and Family Services said [DHHS press release]:
If abuse or neglect is uncovered that occurred before the child was turned over to a hospital, County Attorneys do have the option of filing charges. The law only protects people from prosecution against the actual act of leaving the child at a hospital. There seems to be a misconception that when a child is dropped off at a hospital, the parents are absolved of responsibility. That couldnt be further from the truth.Eleven children aged 1 to 17 years were left at an Omaha hospital Wednesday [KETV-Omaha report]. Given the broad interpretation of the term "child," these parents will not face prosecution. DHHS maintained that such abandonment was not intended to be covered by the provision, continuing:
LB 157 was intended to protect helpless children who are in immediate danger, such as an infant who is left outside or unattended. It was not intended for those having difficulty parenting older youth who may be defiant, unruly or who have behavior problems.Nebraska lawmakers have since called for a clarifying amendment to the safe haven law. AP has more; USA Today has additional coverage.
Nebraska was the last of the fifty states to enact its infant safe haven law [Child Welfare Information Gateway backgrounder], but all of the others apply strictly to children under one year old. Nationwide, there are different requirements for what constitutes a "safe haven:" in some states, like Nebraska, infants may only be relinquished to a hospital; in others, licensed personnel at emergency medical services, police stations, and fire stations can accept infants. In most states, once the safe haven provider has informed the local child services department that an infant has been abandoned, the department takes responsibility for the child and petitions the court for termination of the parent's parental rights.