Updates to child abuse, neglect definitions proposed

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 22 on a bill that would redefine child abuse and neglect in Nebraska.

Sen. Ben Hansen
Sen. Ben Hansen

LB42, sponsored 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 is misunderstood by the public and the bill would clarify that neglect exists only when danger is sufficiently obvious and if a reasonable person would not permit their child to be placed in such a situation.

“Parents know their childrens’ abilities and strengths better than anyone else,” Hansen said. “They also understand the [differences] between each child.”

Sarah Helvey of Nebraska Appleseed testified in favor of the bill, saying the current definition of neglect in state law is “outdated and overbroad.” The result is that too many Nebraska families are reported to the state Department of Health and Human Services and investigated, she said, although only about 5 percent of those reports are substantiated.

“We support LB42 because we believe it would allow DHHS to screen out cases where there is no evidence of neglect and conserve resources for more pressing types of cases,” Helvey said.

Anahí Salazar of Voices for Children in Nebraska also testified in support. A child neglect investigation can be traumatic for children and families, she said, and situations that may initially appear as neglectful may be rooted in issues of poverty that can be better addressed through other means.

“We are continuing to put families through investigations that may not be necessary to ensuring child safety,” Salazar said. “A family’s lack of economic security is not, in itself, a reason for a child welfare system response.”

Deputy Douglas County Attorney Dara Delehant testified in opposition to the bill, calling it “extremely vague and imprecise.” For example, she said, a determination that a child is of “sufficient maturity” to engage in an activity can vary widely from one individual to the next, making prosecutions more difficult.

“The proposed language limits the situation in which a jury could find someone had committed child abuse,” Delehant said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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