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Parents and students streamed into back-to-school night at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, a junior high in Omaha, on Sept. 16. But one group stood out: the Staton kids, led by 18-year-old sister Amoria, who had taken on the role of de facto mom to her nine siblings ever since the children's own mother, Rebel Jane Staton, had died 20 months earlier. "They came into my classroom," math teacher Brian Lisko says of Amoria, the two sisters who attended the school and several younger siblings. "They were asking questions. We got up to the board and worked math problems together."

That scene, however, masked a family at its breaking point. A week later on Sept. 24, the children's father, Gary Staton, a 35-year-old unemployed machinist, drove all the kids except Amoria—five boys and four girls, ages 20 months to 17 years—to the entrance of Creighton University Medical Center, relinquishing his parental responsibilities and leaving them in the care of the state, stunning officials and citizens alike. "I had no idea he needed help," says one of Staton's neighbors.

The desperate dad's actions set off a fierce debate about the use—and misuse—of the safe haven law, which Nebraska became the last state in the union to pass in July. Created to save unwanted newborns that might otherwise end up as "Dumpster babies," the provision typically allows parents to leave infants at hospitals or police stations without fear of prosecution. Unlike other states, however, Nebraska didn't limit the law to infants—and, as a result, has reaped what some say are troubling consequences: Over the past two months, in addition to the Statons, some seven children over the age of 9 have been dropped at hospitals.

"I know it can be difficult to parent kids, but this is an inappropriate way of dealing with it," says Todd Landry, director of Nebraska's child and family division. But state senator Brad Ashford, who helped craft the statute, says the abandonments prove a law like this was needed: "We've had parents shoot their children. This is about safety. If what's happening is shameful, it's just uncovering what's out there. People are really hurting." Next year, lawmakers expect to add guidelines to curb abuses of the law.

Few people realized the Statons were on the brink. Teachers at two schools attended by five of the children say the kids looked healthy and happy and were, in many respects, model citizens. "One of them recently got some of the highest scores on a math test," Lisko says. "And they have this sense of kindness and humility. You could count on them to partner with a student who didn't have one."

Oldest sister Amoria was especially promising. She was active in her high school ROTC, but her plans to go to a local college were put on hold when her mother, Rebel Jane, died of a stroke seven weeks after giving birth to a baby girl. Amoria soon found herself acting as a full-time caregiver as her father worked late hours. "My mom's friends step in sometimes, but at night it's just me," she said in a March 2007 interview with her high school newspaper, North High School's North Star.

Still, there had been signs of trouble. In 2004 social services removed the children from what court papers described as a pet-packed, one-bedroom home lacking gas and a working septic tank. The family also had been reported to child protective services several times during the 1990s, and Gary Staton, according to court documents, did jail time for minor offenses after his third child was born. In July he lost his job.

On Sept. 24 Amoria returned from her afternoon job at Arby's to find all her brothers and sisters gone. Staton told her "he wasn't over the death of their mom," Joanne Manzer, the children's step-grandmother, told PEOPLE. "He couldn't pay for food and rent. He saw this safe haven law on television and thought that would be the way to go."

For now Amoria is living on her own; seven children are staying with a relative in Lincoln; and two older boys are bunking with friends so they can continue at their school. Staton, who Landry says could face a social-services investigation for home conditions, couldn't be reached for comment.

The children themselves, says Manzer, are managing. Some are angry, others want to talk to their dad—all need counseling. "They'll need to talk to someone," Manzer says. "This is like their mother dying all over again."

  • Contributors:
  • Maureen Harrington/Omaha.