Safe haven expansion clears first round

Senators advanced a bill to select file March 20 that would expand safe haven provisions for infants in Nebraska.

Sen. Rick Holdcroft
Sen. Rick Holdcroft

Current state law allows for the surrendering of infants 30 days or younger in person at a hospital. LB876, as introduced by Bellevue Sen. Rick Holdcroft, would adopt the Newborn Safe Haven Act, which would provide additional options for a parent or a person acting on the parent’s behalf to release custody voluntarily of an infant that is 90 days or younger.

In addition to hospitals and other health care facilities, the bill would allow a parent or designee to surrender physical custody at a fire or police station that has staff present 24 hours a day, with an emergency medical provider or at a newborn safety device installed at an approved location.

The newborn safety device — a padded and climate controlled receptacle designed for infants — would need to be visible to staff or have a motion sensor or dual alarm system. The dual alarm system would sound an alert when the receptacle opens and immediately notify 911 to dispatch an emergency care provider to the box’s location.

Holdcroft said there have been 14 infants surrendered since current Nebraska safe haven provisions were established in 2008, while nearly 200 infants were abandoned during the same time period.

“I believe LB876 directly addresses the disparity between these two numbers and should, in theory, reduce the number of abandonments to zero,” Holdcroft said.

The bill states legislative intent to appropriate $15,000 to the state Department of Health and Human Services in fiscal year 2023-24 for grants to purchase newborn safety devices for authorized drop-off locations. In addition, DHHS would receive $50,000 in FY2024-25 and $10,000 each year after to develop, implement and maintain a public information program regarding the Newborn Safe Haven Act.

No individual would be prosecuted solely for the act of surrendering a newborn under the bill’s provisions.

North Platte Sen. Mike Jacobson spoke in support of the proposal, saying it was “critically important” to provide additional outlets for parents who may be struggling postpartum.

“We need to look at the bigger issue,” Jacobson said, “and that’s saving young babies.”

Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood supported the expansion of drop-off locations and community resources, but said she was “adamantly opposed” to the implementation of newborn safety devices, often referred to as ‘baby boxes.’ Such devices are not subject to inspection or approval by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission or the American Society for Testing and Materials, she said.

In addition, Blood said, the devices would not address the root causes of child abandonment, such as sexual or physical abuse, mental illness, isolation or the inability to access health care.

“My concern is that we are putting babies at risk,” Blood said. “Babies are not bank deposits; they don’t belong in boxes.”

A Judiciary Committee amendment would have provided the juvenile court with jurisdiction over children surrendered under the Newborn Safe Haven Act and offered further criminal protections for parents who surrender an infant.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, chairperson of the committee, acknowledged several concerns about the amendment, including “broad language” that would provide parents with blanket immunity from prosecution for neglect of a child who is the biological sibling of an infant surrendered under the Newborn Safe Haven Act.

Wayne also said contradictory language in the amendment would both require the department to attempt to locate a parent or family member of a surrendered child before terminating parental rights and forbid them from doing so.

Holdcroft agreed to work with Blood and Wayne to address their concerns on select file and asked senators to vote down the pending committee amendment, which under legislative rules could not be withdrawn.

Following a 0-35 vote on the committee amendment, lawmakers voted 38-0 to advance LB876 to select file.

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