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LINCOLN -- The Legislature was to begin first-round debate this morning on amending the safe haven law, but with a 30-day age limit instead of the original 3-day limit.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Monday afternoon heard nearly four hours of testimony -- from child welfare experts, hospital officials, parents, a former foster child and a Department of Health and Human Services official -- on two bills that would amend the law. Afterward, the committee voted 7-1 to advance the amended version of LB1, introduced by Speaker Mike Flood on behalf of Gov. Dave Heineman.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers argued on behalf of sending the original bill to the floor for debate, even though he doesn’t believe in safe haven bills, and doesn’t believe services are attainable for older children.
“The die is cast, the skids are greased,” he said. “You can get in the way of the train if you want to, but you’re not going to stop it. The only train that’s going to make it to the station is LB1.”
The committee expects the bill will be subjected to a number of amendments once it gets to the floor. Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery has already filed an amendment to change the age limit of the safe haven bill to 1 year.
A motion to repeal the law, to stop dropoffs of older children and to give state senators time in the regular session to deal with the issues that have surfaced is also an option, said Lincoln Sen. DiAnna Schimek, a member of the committee.
“If the question of the (age limit) puts us in knots, (repeal) might be the solution,” she said.
The committee heard from 21 people. Only a couple agreed a 3-day age limit was the answer in this special session.
Even though they knew the Legislature most likely couldn’t deal with anything but the age limit, most wanted to have their say about the problems the law had uncovered with services for older children. Thirty-four children �” none of them younger than a year old -- have been dropped off at Nebraska hospitals since the law went into effect.
Among those who spoke was Peter Meyer, who told a chilling story about his family’s experience with HHS in the 1990s and his parents attempts to get help for the troubled children they had adopted.
In the end, it destroyed his family, he said, and he believes it led to the untimely death of his mother in July.
His mother, an attorney, and his father, a doctor, brought four children into their family, beginning when Meyer was 7. Two of them had severe problems.
“The Department of Health and Human Services failed to inform my parents about the psychological condition of the children who were being adopted into our home,” Meyer said.
It became evident not long after they came to live there the children were seriously disturbed, with attachment disorders that made them incapable of forming relationships, he said.
His parents took them to many counselors. When it became clear the parents were in over their head, they wanted the children removed and placed elsewhere. HHS said if they tried that, they would be accused of child abuse and in danger of losing their biological children.
The behavior crushed the family, he said, and in the end the pressure caused his father to leave. His mother postponed surgery after surgery needed for the rheumatoid arthritis she’d had since childhood, searching for help for the children, which she never found.
“It’s really upsetting to know that a law like this with no age limit could have helped my family,” he said.
“It could have saved my family. It could have saved my mom.”
Senators also heard from the other side: a 28-year-old man who was abandoned as a boy by his mother. Scott Wosterel, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, and his brothers were taken from their family when he was 9 and once in foster care moved around 15 times. Eventually he went back to his mother, but she sent him away again.
“My heart was shut down by abandonment,” he said. “It leaves a scar on a person’s life.”
Even if a parent says she loves her child as she leaves him, a child is smart enough to figure out that’s not the case, he said.
Some who testified expressed distrust that if the Legislature does not deal with older children in the special session, they will be forgotten later on.
If the pressure is taken off, said Voices for Children in Nebraska director Kathy Bigsby Moore, “I am fearful we will not see the true solution we need to see.”
Topher Hansen, representing the Behavioral Health Coalition, said the state was operating under a system dominated by cost, not care.
“We’re whittled down, and now we’re into bone,” he said.
But Judiciary Chairman Brad Ashford of Omaha told providers they must work together, come up with a plan and bring it to the Legislature by the regular session.
“You’re the experts,” he said.
Todd Landry, director of HHS division of children and family services, underwent some tough questioning from senators.
Although HHS repeatedly said none of the children dropped off at hospitals were in immediate danger of being harmed, some had threatened suicide, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said.
But Landry said that didn’t mean they were actively suicidal at the time.
Only three of the 29 children still in the state’s care had serious enough problems to be placed in higher-level treatment, he said. All others are in foster homes, with relatives or in shelters.
Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill said she was disturbed by some of the judgmental statements made by Landry about parents who used the law, and that he had not personally contacted them when they called him. He found time, she said, to personally contact members of the media.
Landry said it was not the role of government to intervene in a family’s life.
In the end, he said HHS has always tried to be as open and transparent as it can be.
“All I’m asking you to do is step it up with us in the next six to eight weeks,” Ashford said, asking for his help to solve the problems of the families who need services.