Bill would update child abuse, neglect definitions

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony March 3 on a bill that would redefine child abuse and neglect in Nebraska.

Sen. Ben Hansen
Sen. Ben Hansen

LB1000, introduced by Blair Sen. Ben Hansen, would update Nebraska’s definition of child abuse and neglect by excluding certain independent childhood activities as a consideration for child abuse as long as the child is of sufficient maturity, physical condition and mental ability to avoid substantial risk of harm.

Under the bill, independent activities could include walking or biking to and from school or a nearby commercial or recreational facility, playing outdoors, remaining unattended in a motor vehicle in good weather or remaining home alone for a reasonable period of time.

Hansen said current law often is misunderstood by the public. The bill would clarify that neglect exists only when danger is sufficiently obvious, he said, and if a reasonable person would not permit their child to be placed in such a situation.

Additionally, Hansen said, LB1000 would protect children’s ability to engage in reasonable independent childhood activities without their parents being reported to the state’s Child Abuse Hotline or put into the child welfare system.

“Parents have reached out saying they feel that there are everyday experiences they allow for their children that people from the outside could consider as endangerment,” he said. “In actuality though, the parents allow for these activities to promote growth and to challenge their children to excel in life.”

Sarah Helvey of Nebraska Appleseed testified in support of the bill. Nebraska’s current definition of neglect is outdated and overbroad, she said, and as a result too many families are reported and investigated for alleged maltreatment that is never substantiated.

Children benefit from opportunities to be kids and have unstructured play, Helvey said, and families shouldn’t be stopped from giving their kids independence whether by choice or, in some cases, by necessity.

Lincoln Arneal of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation also testified in support of the bill. He said LB1000 would allow parents greater freedom to choose how to raise their children by establishing clearer definitions of child abuse and neglect and permissible activities.

“With clearer definitions, it would eliminate some of the confusion of permissible activities,” Arneal said. “It also clarifies that parents don’t need to supervise children 24/7 provided they have established a safe environment with appropriate developmental activities.”

Aubrey Mancuso, representing Voices for Children in Nebraska, testified in favor of the bill. Mancuso said an ideal child welfare system prioritizes family preservation and removes children from their homes only when absolutely necessary. Removal from the home is traumatic for children regardless of the suitability of their parents, she said, and Nebraska is putting families through investigations that may not be necessary to ensure child safety.

“Nebraska has made progress in reducing the number of child removals over the past decade, but we continue to have a higher rate of investigations per capita than the U.S. overall,” Mancuso said. “Further, the rates of investigations that are ultimately substantiated are lower than the U.S. average.”

No one testified in opposition to LB1000 and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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