Out in the Open

How a law meant to curb infanticide was used to abandon teens

With good intentions, Nebraska passed its Safe Haven Law in 2008 without an age restriction. Many didn't expect older children would be dropped off.
In 2008, Gary Staton dropped off nine of his 10 kids after his wife, RebelJane died. RebelJane's aunt Phyllis McCaul ended up taking seven of Staton's kids. Some are pictured above in a photo taken in 2017. (Supplied by Phyllis McCaul)

It was a law originally meant to stop infanticide. But in 2008, it was used to drop off a total of 35 older children.

Nebraska had just passed its version of a Safe Haven Law, meant to decriminalize infant abandonment. The law makes it so parents who can't care for a baby, don't do anything desperate. With a Safe Haven Law, parents can legally and anonymously give up their baby.

All states in the U.S. have a version of a Safe Haven Law now, but Nebraska's was different: there was no age restriction. All other states capped the age at a few days to 30 days old.

"I think there's a misperception that we just inadvertently left an age cap out. But the reality was we wanted to save lives of older kids who might be at risk," said Amanda McGill Johnson, a Nebraska state senator at the time.

Amanda McGill Johnson, a former Nebraska state senator, says she was shocked at how the law was used to drop off older children. (Amanda McGill Johnson/Twitter)

"We'd seen nationally a mother who drowned her kids in a bathtub because she was depressed. And, so, in our minds, why should only infant life be protected?"

Most kids between 10 and 17

What happened next stunned the former state senator. It wasn't infants, but kids and teens being abandoned, many at hospital emergency wards. Most were between the ages of 10 and 17. 

Laura Peet-Erkes worked on the front lines as a social worker at one of those hospitals, Creighton University in Omaha. She said one or two kids got dropped off every week. She can't remember getting any infants.

"Some of the kids were dropped off and walked in by their parents who gave us an extensive history about everything that they'd been dealing with ... [T]here were other parents who literally dropped their kids off and drove away," she said.

"It was a challenge for us to figure out, 'Who is this kid?' 'Where did they come from?' ... [S]ome of them were so confused about what was going on [asking] 'Why did my mom leave?' 'What's going to happen to me next?'"

The fact that older children were being dropped off put a national spotlight on the issue of struggling families, particularly those with children who had mental health and behavioural issues, and in some cases, who were a danger to themselves and others.

It became national news - that a law originally meant to curb infanticide was being used to abandon older kids. But it was no surprise to Laura and other healthcare professionals who saw desperate parents show up at emergency wards before and attempt to admit their kids.

'I needed to save the kids'

Most of the children and their parents were not identified in the media. One of the few exceptions was Gary Staton. His case was slightly different.

Gary dropped off nine of his 10 children (his eldest was already 18) because he said he felt overwhelmed. His wife, RebelJane, died of a brain aneurysm the previous year. Phyllis McCaul was RebelJane's aunt. The then 58-year-old had already raised five of her own children but ended up taking in seven of Staton's kids, ages one to 14.

All 10 kids from the Staton family in 2007, one year before the Nebraska Safe Haven Law came into effect and most of them were dropped off by their father. (Supplied by Phyllis McCaul)

"I told Rebel that the family would take care of her children and that it was OK for her to die. And then she did. So I felt like I needed to save the kids, like I promised," said Phyllis.

Phyllis says she had to put up a fight to get all seven of the children because she was an older woman, and threatened to take none of them unless all seven came with her.

Ten years later, Phyllis says all of the children are fine and taller than her now.

She also says she thought it was important to take them to the state capitol building, to help them understand why their dad dropped them off and what the law was all about.

"I said, 'Right there, right inside those doors, you guys, that Safe Haven Law was made. And what happened to you guys was wrong. And they all met in there and changed it. So you guys made history. So be proud of the fact that you survived this.' So for about a week, they told everybody they made history." 

Four months after the law took effect, Nebraska added an age cap of 30 days.

Former state sentaor Amanda McGill Johnson says she gets sensitive when people refer to what happened as a "debacle."

Two baby boxes opened in Edmonton hospitals on 2013. Alberta is just the second province to provide the newborn safe havens in an attempt to prevent unsafe abandonment. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

"The law had unintended consequences than what we had originally anticipated but I think ultimately those consequences became a good thing for our state" because it highlighted the lack of support for families struggling with mental health issues.

Though child abandonment is illegal in Canada, a few hospitals in Vancouver and Edmonton have drop-off areas where people can leave infants without repercussions. In addition, the Safe Haven Laws were talked about this year in Canada after an infant was found near a busy road in Halifax.

This story originally aired on December 1, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Unintended Consequences".


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