Varying safe-haven laws in US create confusion

Age limits differ in many states

By Anna Jo Bratton
Associated Press / October 31, 2008
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OMAHA - As lawmakers prepare to tweak Nebraska's much-criticized safe-haven law, which allows parents to abandon children as old as 18, they will find no nationwide consensus on what the age limit should be.

Nebraska was the last state to enact a safe-haven law, a measure intended to prevent infanticide and the unsafe abandonment of newborns.

But since the law took effect in July, 23 children have been dropped off at Nebraska hospitals - none of them newborns and three of them from out of state. The reason: Nebraska's law provides safe haven for any "child." It doesn't set an age limit.

On Wednesday night, a 17-year-old male was dropped off at an Omaha hospital, a hospital spokesman said yesterday. If his case is confirmed, he would be the 24th child abandoned under the law.

Some have taken the word "child" in the law to mean "minor," which in Nebraska includes anyone under the age of 19. Others have adopted the common law definition, which includes those under age 14.

Nebraska lawmakers are to meet Nov. 14 in a special session to lower the age limit. Mike Flood, speaker of the Legislature, said he will introduce a bill establishing a 3-day-old age limit, but the Legislature could choose to change that.

At least 15 states use a 3-day-old threshold, according to the National Safe Haven Alliance.

But the age limit is 14 days in Iowa, just across Nebraska's line. And to the north in South Dakota, the limit is 60 days.

"They're making it all up as they go along," said Adam Pertman, executive director of a New York adoption institute and a frequent critic of safe-haven laws. "Where's the research that indicates that this is the right length of time?"

The absence of any national standard for an age limit was one reason why Nebraska lawmakers decided to use the generic term "child" in their safe haven law.

"It does open a door to older children being left off," state Senator Gwen Howard said during January's debate on the legislation. "I don't see that being a problem."

Howard said Wednesday she would listen to arguments for and against changing the law before making a decision.

Tim Jaccard, president of the National Safe Haven Alliance, said he hopes to bring all 50 states to an agreement on a standard age limit and possibly lobby for federal legislation to establish it.

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