Nebraska was the last state to pass a safe haven law, designed to protect newborns from being abandoned or killed by panicked young mothers. But what was meant to be a well-intended law turned into a mess that exposed a problem the state still struggles with: the lack of resources and services for families with troubled children.
The law, enacted in February 2008, allowed parents to drop off children up to age 18 at designated safe haven sites, such as hospitals or fire stations, without prosecution. The law was intended to give parents a safe, quick and legal way to relinquish their parental rights and responsibilities.
But soon after the law took effect in September 2008, officials and the public were shocked by the wave of older children, mostly with behavioral problems, being abandoned by their parents. Some of them came from out of state. Most of them needed more counseling or psychiatric services than their parents could find or pay for.
One of them was Skylar, an 11-year-old boy who was bipolar, abusive and violent. His mother, Lavennia Coover, a divorced kindergarten teacher with three children, had tried for three years to get him the help he needed, but nothing worked. She was at the end of her rope, financially and emotionally, when she made the wrenching decision to leave him at a hospital in Omaha.
“I still cry every night,” Coover said. “What parent wouldn’t feel guilty doing this?”
She told her son as she drove him to the hospital: “Skylar, you need help that I just can’t give you.”
The law also sparked a national debate about parental responsibility and the role of the state in helping families in crisis. Some critics said the law encouraged parents to give up on their children too easily. Others said it revealed a widespread shortage of public and private aid, especially mental health care, for overstressed families and teenagers.
The law also prompted some lawmakers to question the age limit they had set for the safe haven law. Sen. Gwen Howard, who proposed to remove any age limit from the original bill, said: “I don’t know if that’s a concern that really would become a pressing problem.”
But it did become a problem. In November 2008, after 35 children had been dropped off under the law, the Nebraska Legislature revised it to limit its reach to infants up to 30 days old, which was more in line with other states’ laws.
“We have learned from this experience,” Gov. Dave Heineman said after signing the revised law.
The Legislature also established a commission to propose new measures to help families like Coover’s. The commission recommended expanding access to mental health services, creating a family helpline and providing more support for foster care and adoption.
But some experts say that more needs to be done to prevent child abandonment and abuse in Nebraska and across the country. They say that families need more education, prevention and intervention programs that can address their needs before they reach a breaking point.
As for Coover, she hopes that her son will get better and that they can reunite someday.
“I love him with all my heart,” she said.