Abandonment of newborns in parking lots, bathrooms, dumpsters, and other unsafe locations is unfortunately not uncommon. The media often publicize tragedies of newborn babies left in unsafe public places.
Abandonment of children is an extreme form of child neglect which may be due to various reasons. Abandonment may be because of family breakdown, premature motherhood, irresponsible fatherhood, illegitimate birth, and the death of both parents. Panic/shame also serves as a motivation in baby abandonment cases. Mothers may deny or hide their pregnancies and then after birth of the newborn, discard their babies at a convenient location.
A survey conducted by the HHS Administration for Children and Families showed that in the year 1991, 65 babies were abandoned in public places, and the number increased to 105 in 1998. In 1991, eight of the abandoned infants were found dead and in 1998, 33 were found dead. Before 1999, yearly around 33 newborns were abandoned in Texas; around ten were abandoned in Washington and about 33 in Illinois. Other states also showed similar abandonment numbers. Statistics showed that one out of three of these abandoned newborns did not survive.[i] Consequent to this alarming situation, child welfare agencies and state legislatures began to devise measures to protect the new born and their parents who decide to keep away the newborn. As a result, safe haven laws were enacted to address the issue of newborn abandonment.
Texas was the first state to enact laws which legalized parent’s newborn abandonment under certain specific conditions. In Texas, safe haven laws were enacted in the year 1999. Texas laws provide means by which parents could anonymously and safely relinquish their newborns. Texas safe haven legislation created a nationwide momentum and following Texas nearly all the states enacted laws which provided measures for safe abandonment of newborns.[ii]
Safe Haven Laws
Safe haven laws are laws which permit any person statutorily defined by law, usually parents or the parent’s designee to abandon an unharmed newborn baby at any location permitted by law. Safe haven laws vary by state and they are known by different names in various states. Safe Haven laws are also known as Baby Moses law, Safe Place law, Safe Arms for Newborns law, Safe Delivery law, or Safe Surrender law depending upon the state in which they are enacted. Safe haven laws offer various protections to the newborn and the person relinquishing the newborn. However, abandonment should be according to the governing laws to benefit from the protections guaranteed. In the United States, almost all the states have safe haven laws that allow parents or statutorily defined persons to relinquish their newborns at any safe location authorized by the statute.
Location for Abandonment (Safe Surrender Site)
All safe haven statutes specifically state where a baby may be relinquished. Some state laws allow a newborn to be handed over to a doctor or church, and others mention specific places in the hospital such as an emergency room with a nurse where the newborn may be abandoned. Commonly, hospitals, manned fire house, on duty police stations, church, adoption agencies, and health care providers are considered to be safe locations. However, newborn abandonment will be legal only if it is in accordance with the concerned state laws.
Relinquishment of newborn is legal only if the relinquished baby comes within the age limit permitted by state laws. Each state limits how old the infant may be when relinquished. Some states place the maximum age of an infant that can be relinquished as three days; whereas, there are states that have extended the age limit to one year.
Parent Anonymity and Liability
Safe haven laws protect the anonymity of the relinquishing parents, and keep them nameless before the court. Often, a numbered bracelet system remains the only link between the newborn and the mother. Additionally, the parent’s threat of criminal prosecution may be either reduced or eliminated if the relinquished newborn is unharmed and meets the age specified by the state law.
Protection Offered to Safe Surrender Sites
Generally, a safe haven to which the newborn is relinquished is also immune from civil and criminal liability for complying with the safe haven laws in good faith. However, state laws regarding the liability of safe havens vary.
[i]National Adoption Report,” Adoption Council, 2004-Fall, at: http://www.adoptioncouncil.org/