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Unicameral reviews safe haven law

With all that happened last fall regarding Nebraska's safe haven law, it is no surprise that the Legislature is addressing lessons learned during that dramatic period. To their credit, several legislators, including Annette Dubas of Fullerton, Brad Ashford and Tom White of Omaha, Amanda McGill of Lincoln and Tim Gay of Papillion, are making sure there are public-policy responses.

After initially failing to pin down immunity from prosecution to those who would leave newborns at safe haven hospitals, the state and its lawmakers were struck by a series of events in which highly stressed parents or guardians of older children and teenagers took advantage of the law to seek relief from severe behavioral issues. The number of times this happened in a short period prompted a special legislative session last November. Emergency legislation was enacted to establish a 30-day age limit.

The newly amended law took effect Nov. 21. During the 70 days leading up to that date, under the original law, 36 children were left at safe havens. That number included six 17-year-olds and six 15-year-olds. All but 12 of the 36 were older than 11 years of age. Seven were not residents of Nebraska. Once the first such incident occurred and drew attention, then subsequent ones happened quickly and frequently, drawing even more attention, including national media, to what was unquestionably the most unique and open-ended safe haven law in the nation.

The turmoil and attention were alarming for many Nebraskans, including public officials. The concern was not so much due to the high level of publicity as to the clear revelation - and for some, confirmation - of serious problems and needs affecting children and families experiencing mental illness, emotional disorders and other behavioral health problems. While 29 safe-havened children epitomized Nebraska's problems, it is estimated that several thousand are afflicted with behavioral illness.

The special session restored the safe haven law to its real intent, but also set the stage for an expanded public-policy response. The current session is the first since these behavioral health issues relating to children and teenagers took on a new sense of urgency. A package of five legislative bills has been identified for this purpose. All five bills have been prioritized; two already have had early floor debate. Here's a summary:

LB 346, which was introduced by Sen. Gay at the request of Gov. Heineman, proposes a three-part program. At its core is a statewide, 24-hour, seven-days-per-week telephone hotline for children and family support. Staffed by trained personnel, under supervision of licensed mental health practitioners, it would be a single point of access for behavioral health triage and referrals to community-based services.

The other components of LB 346 would be a family-based, peer-support program known as "Family Navigators" and a voluntary program of case-management for post-adoption and post-guardianship situations involving former state wards. Importantly, the legislation also calls for an annual evaluation and report on these responses.

After being advanced to the full Legislature by the Health and Human Services Committee, LB 346 had its first round of floor debate and advanced without opposition to Select File, where it awaits the second round.

Senators Dubas, Ashford, White and McGill all voted to advance LB 346, but they also emphasized that it is only part of what's necessary. Enhanced access won't do much more than increase waiting lists if services aren't available. Adequate funding to provide an expanded level of services is also a necessary response.

As for LB 356, Sen. Dubas introduced it as a fairly comprehensive measure. As advanced by the Judiciary Committee and so amended during first-round debate, the bill has been pared to an infusion of an additional $15 million for both FY-2010 and FY-2011 for the state's six behavioral health regions. Such funding would support a greater level of behavioral health services for children who are not state wards. This is an extremely significant aspect because for some families their last recourse in order to access services is surrendering custody of their children to the state.

The other three bills in the package all await first-round debate.

LB 136 proposes to expand eligibility for the Kids Connection health-insurance program to minors in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The eligibility cutoff is now 185 percent. This program leverages federal funding.

LB 601 proposes that the state seek greater utilization of federal Medicaid funding for community-based mental health services.

LB 603 seeks to address the state's shortage of behavioral health professionals and to expand outreach, particularly in rural areas. Among several aspects, it would provide funds for two additional psychiatry residents per year in a Nebraska program.

Obviously, the impact of the package as a matter of state budget consequences will influence the ultimate results. There is economic uncertainty and plenty of spending angst. Can the state afford to do all this at meaningful levels? For the sake of young Nebraskans and the startling revelations from the safe haven turmoil, can the state truly afford not to?

Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which is headquartered in Lincoln.

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