In Abuse, Bullying Laws

Safe Haven Law: Is it Really Enough?

Safe Haven Law

For many years, society struggled with the dilemma of what to do with abandoned babies.  While practically everyone agreed that these children needed to be saved, there was a lot of debate on what to do about the parents (often mothers) who would leave young children in unsafe places in the hope that they would be found by someone who wanted them.  In the past two decades, however, the American legal system has created the safe haven law to deal with this problem.

Safe haven laws, also known as baby Moses laws, typically allow a parent to leave a newborn baby in a safe location such as a police station or fire house.  Parents who leave babies in these designated areas cannot be held criminally liable for abandoning their babies.  Exactly how these laws are implemented varies slightly between states, but it is crucial to note that every state in America has a safe haven law that ensures newborn babies can be taken somewhere safe if their parents cannot care for them.

History

For centuries, society has struggled with the question of what to do with children who cannot be cared for by their parents.  Perhaps one of the hardest problems to solve was what to do about parents who would immediately abandon a child after giving birth.  While this can seem unthinkable to many people, it is a common problem among young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and without the resources to care for a child.

For many years, women who found themselves in this situation would try to give away, hide, or kill the infant.  In the most tragic cases, babies would be found dead in garbage dumps or left outside of public buildings exposed to the elements.  After several of these cases in the late 1990s, the first version of a baby Moses law was proposed in Texas.

Under this first Texas safe haven law, a mother could take a newborn child to designated safe haven areas and give the baby up for adoption anonymously.  No parent could be prosecuted for abandoning or neglecting a child as long as they brought the baby to one of these specified locations.  To bring attention to the law, an advertising campaign was put into place alerting the public to the locations that were considered safe havens for dropping off children.

At the time, this law was considered revolutionary in America, although other countries had similar legislation in effect for years prior to this.  After several years of watching the state to observe potential issues with the law, a number of states passed similar legislation.  In nearly all of these cases, the law applied only to birth mothers who gave up their children within seven to thirty days of the child being born.

The one exception to this was in Nebraska, who enacted their legislation nearly a decade later.  In this case, the legislation that was passed did not include an age limit on the children being given up, nor did it include a clause stating that the birth parent be a resident of Nebraska.  The law soon made worldwide headlines as parents of older children, including toddlers and even teenagers, rushed to Nebraska to give up their kids.  The most famous case was a single father of nine kids who abandoned his entire family at a Nebraska fire station.  Within a month of the first instances of people using this law to abandon older children, however, the legislation was amended to close this loophole.

What Happens When a Mother Uses a Safe Haven Law?

While everyone’s individual circumstances are different, the majority of people who use safe haven laws have similar general experiences.  The process starts when the mother of a newborn child decides that she cannot take care of a newborn baby.  A newborn is defined to be a child that is less than thirty days old, although some states’ safe haven laws specify that the baby must be younger than seven days old.  In many cases, however, it can be next to impossible to determine the age of an infant without a birth certificate or witnesses to the birth.

The mother can find a designated “safe haven” by searching online or asking about the law at a school, police station, or hospital.  In most states, hospitals, police stations, and fire stations are designated as safe haven areas for mothers and babies.  These areas are usually staffed twenty four hours a day, ensuring that a person will quickly find the baby and take care of him or her.  These areas also have trained medical personnel such as nurses or paramedics that can care for an infant who is sick or injured.

In many cases, dropping off an infant can be done completely anonymously.  Safe haven locations have a covered doorway or porch area that a parent can place the child in, but that does not require them to talk to anyone on site.  In some cases, a mother will be spotted by personnel who work at the location, and in these cases the mother will be asked to identify herself.  It is important to note, however, that under the rule of the law, the mother is under absolutely no legal obligation to identify herself.

If the mother does identify herself, or provide any information that can be used later to track her down, this information cannot be used to prosecute her.  Mothers who use baby Moses laws do not have to say who they are, who the father is, or provide any kind of contact information.  Any information that is provided will only go into a case file for the child.

After dropping off the child, the mother is free to leave.  The child is then taken to a medical professional who will assess the baby’s physical health and provide first aid and other care that the child immediately needs.  After this, a social services case worker is called to the scene to create a file for the child.  In the vast majority of cases, the baby is given to a foster family within hours of being dropped off.  Within a few days, the child is placed on a state registry as available for adoption.

How Many People Use Safe Haven Laws?

Because of the great need for privacy with a law like this, it can be very difficult to get good statistics tracking the number of babies that are dropped off in safe havens.  To further complicate matters, babies that are abandoned in hospitals are frequently counted under this law, even though the hospital presumably knows the identity of the mother.  Therefore, estimates are all that can really be provided as an answer to this question.

Nationally, advocates for these laws have claimed that thousands of babies have been saved through safe havens.  These numbers are usually based not on the number of safe havens that are reporting abandoned children; it is impossible to know which children were dropped off under the baby Moses law and which ones were simply abandoned under other circumstances.  It’s also been reported that babies have been dropped off in all fifty states with the exception of Alaska.

Legal Challenges

While these laws have typically faced some controversy in every state before getting passed, as of January 2006 they have only faced one legal challenge in court.  In this case, the fact that the baby is placed up for adoption without the non-surrendering parent being notified was used as a basis for challenging the law.  The Supreme Court found that while the non-surrounding parent was in fact not notified of the baby’s surrender to the state, the state had fulfilled its obligation by conducting due diligence in publicizing that a baby was surrendered.  In other words, the non-surrendering parent did have an opportunity to come forward, even if he was not expressly notified that the child was about to become eligible for adoption.

Safe Haven Summary

Safe haven laws allow the mother of a newborn infant the opportunity to surrender the child to state custody without the fear of criminal charges or other legal entanglements.  By making sure that there are safe places for new mothers to go when they know that they cannot care for an infant, the lives of many babies have been saved.  Since every state has a version of the safe haven law, it’s important for any woman who is pregnant to know about this option.

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