Last fall, 36 children, most of them teenagers and pre-teens, were dropped off under Nebraska’s broad safe haven law. In November, the Nebraska Legislature went into special session and limited the law to infants up to 30 days old. However, the crisis that was exposed by the safe haven law – the older children in our community with unmet behavioral health needs – was unaddressed during the special session. Lawmakers made good on their promise to revisit this issue during the regular legislative session, which adjourned sine die on Friday. Before adjourning, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed LB 603, a package of legislation which begins to address some of the issues brought to light by the safe haven law.
While the safe haven package is a positive first step, more work remains to be done. The hotline and Family Navigator Program, which are intended to create a central access point for referrals to existing services, will only be successful if there are sufficient services to which they can direct families in crisis.
Therefore, as advocates, caregivers, and citizens, we must continue to shine a spotlight on this issue.
For example, a recent review cited in the Lincoln Journal Star suggests that most of the families who utilized the safe haven law had previously been reported to and/or had sought help from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), yet the majority of those reports were determined to be unfounded or were not investigated by HHS. Furthermore, the full extent of this information was not previously known to legislators or the public because of efforts by HHS and a vote of the state Foster Care Review Board to stop the reviews of the safe haven cases. This information is vital if we are to learn from the safe haven experience and make improvements to the system.
It is also imperative that we continue to listen to and hear the voices of the parents and caregivers who speak from personal experience about children in crisis and their inability to access services to help them.
Multiple task forces, reports, and studies in the state have concluded that we desperately need to increase the capacity of existing community based behavioral health services for children. What we need now is the continued public will to do just that – to create a true children’s behavioral health system that meets the needs of children and is adequately funded.