Claiming to be unable to cope with the burden of raising nine minor children as a widower, Nebraska resident Gary Staton went to Omaha’s Creighton University Medical Center Sept. 24 with his children, ages 1 to 17, in tow.
Then he walked out the door alone.
Staton was allowed to drop off his children at the hospital under a controversial Nebraska Safe Haven Law that critics say is too broad, but proponents argue only errs on the side of caution in protecting every child under 18 in the state. In a Thursday interview on TODAY, Staton’s adult family members suggested that if it weren’t for the law, he might have turned to them instead.
family member Staton’s adult daughter Amoria Micek, his father-in-law, Jack Manzer, and Manzer’s wife, Joanne, via satellite from Omaha.
‘He needed help’All states have Safe Haven laws, but Nebraska’s law, passed in July, goes a step further. While other states largely allow mothers to leave a newborn at a hospital or fire department and walk away — no questions asked — Nebraska’s bill was expanded to cover all minor children.
The law allowed Gary Staton to take his mind-boggling action. His wife Rebel died in February 2007 of a brain aneurysm shortly after giving birth to the couple’s ninth child. Staton said he struggled to keep the family together, and to keep up on his bills. When he lost his job, he reached his wit’s end.
But instead of reaching out to family members, he used Nebraska’s Safe Haven Law to deposit the brood at the hospital.
“We don’t understand; we would have liked him to come to us for help,” Joanne Manzer — the wife of Rebel’s father, Jack Manzer — told Ann Curry on TODAY. “He needed help and this [law] gave him an option. Maybe he could have turned to the family if it wasn’t here.”
Amoria Micek, 18, the adult daughter of Rebel Staton who told Curry she considers Gary Staton her father, said Gary’s mind may have been clouded during a very troubling time.
“I think he was overwhelmed and he wasn’t sure how to handle the situation,” Micek told Curry. “He didn’t want to face the kids with being homeless or with no utilities. That what I can assume, and that’s what he’s told me.”
‘He could have come here’
Jack Manzer said that Gary and his late daughter often got in over their heads raising such a large family — and that when she was alive, Rebel would sometimes drop off the kids for a respite. That Gary chose not to do it this time is bewildering to him.
“Our house is always open. He could have come over here anytime, and he had from time to time,” Manzer told Curry. “I think everything just kind of was getting where it was overwhelming, and he didn’t know which way to go.
“This law that they got down here just kind of opened the door for a lot of people, we’ve had a bunch of problems with it,” Manzer added. “The social services and judges and everybody else are trying to work their way through it.”
For his part, Gary Staton has said in interviews that the death of his wife sent his family life spiraling out of control.
“I was with her for 17 years, and then she was gone,” Staton has said. “What was I going to do? We raised them together. I didn’t think I could do it alone. I fell apart. I couldn’t take care of them. I hope their future is better without me around them.”
But on Wednesday, a juvenile court judge ordered that the children be placed in foster care temporarily, saying the aunt was not properly set up to handle the large family. Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich said the order was to allow time for relatives to get necessary accommodations and backing to support the children.
The Manzers have set up a Staton Children Fun to help pay for clothes, bedding and other materials the children need. “It’ll be for the children,” Joanne Manzer says.
The unusual case of the Staton family has Nebraska lawmakers reconsidering the state’s broad law. It will be addressed when the legislature convenes in January.
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman is pushing for a change in the law to bring it in line with other states. “Like the rest of the country, we wanted to be there to help,” he said. “Unfortunately, they wrote the language too broad. We now need to amend that to change that.”
However, a state senator, Brad Ashford, told NBC he may not be in favor of changing the law. “Potentially saving the life of a child trumps any other sort of discussion about whether it should apply only to infants.”Call for change
Also appearing on TODAY, Tracey Johnson, executive director of the National Safe Haven Alliance, told Curry the Nebraska law is not in keeping with the spirit of the Safe Haven concept. She added that Nebraska’s efforts should be directed elsewhere in caring for children older than infants, but not of adult age.
Johnson said state Safe Haven laws were created “to address the issue that we had women that were abandoning their babies unsafely in dumpsters or in bathrooms. Those babies were unfortunately dying and those women were being prosecuted.
“Safe Haven laws were enacted to keep babies alive and to protect their mothers,” Johnson said, adding that nearly every state has “child in need of services” laws that allow overwhelmed parents to place their children in foster care. That way, parents can later reclaim them, which is likely not an option for Staton under Nebraska’s Safe Haven law.
Meantime, many eyes are on the welfare of the nine Staton children. Grandfather Manzer says the children’s emotional needs are great. “They lost their mother,” he said. “And now they feel like they’ve lost their dad.”
Joanne Manzer added her hope is the children will eventually reunite with their father, and that Gary Staton realizes the love they feel for him. “The kids still love him. He needs to know that.”
For more information about Safe Haven laws, contact the National Save Haven Alliance at 1-888-510-BABY (1-888-510-2229) or visit .