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Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Safe haven statute may see more than age changed

November 16, 2008

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— A Nebraska lawmaker with an important role in changing the state's safe-haven statute says the Legislature might be asked to do more than put an age limit in the law that has led to the abandonment of nearly three dozen children.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said Saturday that the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, could ask that the scope of the special legislative session now under way be expanded. Instead of just adding an age limit to the law, lawmakers could be asked to act to improve access to mental health services.

"The concern is real about these services not being available to older children," Ashford said after the Legislature met briefly.

In calling the rare special session, Gov. Dave Heineman ordered lawmakers to only consider putting an age limit in the law.

As of Friday, 34 children had been abandoned, most of them preteens and teenagers. Five were from outside Nebraska.

Unlike other states' safe-haven laws, intended to safely take in unwanted newborns, Nebraska's doesn't specify an age limit. Some people have interpreted the current law as applying to children as old as 18. But Health and Human Services officials have said a separate state law about juveniles won't let authorities take in children older than 17.

Ashford said Saturday that he doesn't know how likely it is that the Judiciary Committee will ask to expand the scope of the session. Lawmakers could, with a two-thirds majority vote, request that issues besides an age limit be considered. But state statute is unclear on whether Heineman would have to sign off on such a plan or if the session could be expanded without his consent.

Heineman's spokeswoman said he could not be reached for comment Saturday.

On Monday, the Judiciary Committee will conduct public hearings on two bills that would put age caps in the safe-haven law.

The bill introduced on behalf of Heineman would put a three-day age limit on children who could be dropped off at hospitals.

The other bill, introduced by Sen. Annette Dubas, is a two-tiered plan under which children as old as 15 could be dropped off.

Attorney General Jon Bruning's office has been asked to issue an opinion on whether Dubas' bill, which proposes measures besides an age limit, complies with the present requirement that bills introduced during the special session only propose age limits.

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