Tennessee Safe Haven Laws

Safe Haven law, also known in several states as the “Baby Moses” law, is the popular name for United States laws that decriminalize leaving unharmed infants with statutorily designated private persons so that the child becomes a ward of the state.  Many State legislatures have enacted legislation to address infant abandonment and infanticide in response to the alarming rate of increase in the abandonment of infants.

Tennessee Safe Haven Laws relating to abandoned newborns is outlined in Tenn. Code § 68-11-255.  The section contains procedures for surrendering custody of an unwanted infant without criminal liability.  According to the Tennessee Safe Haven Laws, a mother can make a “voluntary delivery,” which means that the mother can leave an unharmed infant aged seventy-two (72) hours or younger on the premises of a facility, with any facility employee or member of the professional medical community at the facility without expressing any intention to return for the infant, and failing to visit or seek contact with the infant for a period of thirty (30) days thereafter.[1]

The term “Facility” means any hospital, birthing center, community health clinic, and any out-patient “walk-in” clinic.[2]  “Member of the professional medical community” means those licensed, or permitted, individuals or institutions capable of rendering corrective action to human life threatening illness or injury; provided, that the member of the professional medical community is on the premises at the time of a voluntary delivery.[3]

A facility shall receive possession of a newborn infant left on facility premises with any facility employee or member of the professional medical community, if the following conditions are satisfied: (1) the infant was born within the preceding seventy-two-hour period, as determined within a reasonable degree of medical certainty[4], (2) the infant is left in an unharmed condition[5], and (3) the infant is voluntarily left by a person who purports to be the child’s mother and who does not express an intention of returning for the infant.[6]

Whenever possible, the facility, any employee of the facility and any member of the professional medical community at such facility shall inquire about the medical history of the mother or newborn, and whenever possible, shall try to find the identity of the mother, infant or the father of the infant.  When making such an inquiry the facility shall inform the mother that she is not required to respond, and that the information is only to facilitate the adoption of the child.  Any information obtained concerning the identity of the mother, infant or father shall be kept confidential and may only be disclosed to the department of children’s services.  The facility may provide the parent, contact information regarding relevant social service agencies.  The facility shall also provide the mother with the name, address and phone number of the department contact person, and shall encourage the mother to involve the department of children’s services in the relinquishment of the infant.  If practicable, the facility shall also provide the mother with both orally delivered and written information concerning the requirements relating to recovery of the child and abandonment of the child.[7]

While the child is at the facility, any employee of the facility or any member of the professional medical community at the facility shall perform all acts necessary to protect the physical health and safety of the child.[8]  They shall be immune from any criminal or civil liability for damages caused as a result of any actions performed while lawfully discharging their duties, and no lawsuit shall be initiated thereon.  However, the facility, any employee of the facility or any member of the professional medical community at the facility should be strictly adhered with all standard of care standard of care required for medical treatment.[9]  Likewise, no criminal prosecution shall be based upon a mother’s act of voluntarily delivering her unharmed infant at a facility, provided that the mother fulfills her obligations for the surrender of the infant.[10]

After taking possession of a newborn infant, the facility, any facility employee or any member of the professional medical community at such facility shall as soon as reasonably possible, and no later than twenty-four (24) hours after receiving the infant, contact the department of children’s services.  However, the facility should contact the department only after the infant’s mother leaves the facility.  Upon receipt of notification, the department or the department’s authorized designee shall immediately assume care, custody and control of the infant.[11]

Within ten (10) days after taking possession of a newborn infant, the department shall give notice once a week for four (4) consecutive weeks in a newspaper or other publication of general circulation in the county in which such voluntary delivery occurred.  The department shall also give notice in the newspaper of another county if it has reason to believe that the infant’s mother or father may be located in that particular county.  The notice shall include information to provide an opportunity for the putative father to claim paternity and for the mother to revoke voluntary delivery.  Such notice shall describe the infant, identify where and when voluntary delivery occurred, specify how and who to contact for follow up and provide any other relevant information.[12]

The department in its notice shall also specify that failure to seek contact with the infant through the department or failure to revoke the voluntary delivery within thirty (30) days of the date of the last publication of notice shall constitute abandonment of the infant and of the mother’s interest.[13]  The notice shall finally specify that any putative father of the infant who fails to claim paternity by contacting the department or registering with the putative father registry within thirty (30) days of the last publication shall be barred from thereafter bringing or maintaining any action to establish paternity of the infant.  The notice shall also specify that such failure shall constitute abandonment of any right to notice of, or to a hearing in, any judicial proceeding for the adoption of such infant and that consent of such putative father shall not be required for adoption of the infant.[14]

A mother who voluntarily delivers an infant pursuant to § 68-11-255 may revoke such voluntary delivery by applying to a qualified court no later than thirty (30) days after notice was completed under § 36-1-142 (e).[15]  After the expiry of thirty (30) days, a voluntary delivery shall be set aside only if the mother shows clear and convincing evidence of duress, fraud or intentional misrepresentation.[16]  The department shall designate one (1) or more persons to serve as a contact in the event the mother requires any information. The department shall provide all facilities designated to receive infants with the name, phone number and other necessary information regarding such contact person.[17]

The parental rights over an infant shall be terminated where the mother (1) voluntarily delivers an infant pursuant to § 68-11-255 and thereafter fails to visit or seek contact with such infant for a period of thirty (30) days after the date of delivery, and (2) fails to seek contact with the infant through the department or fails to revoke the voluntary delivery within thirty (30) days after notice was published under § 36-1-142 (e).[18]

[1] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (a)(3)

[2] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (a)(1)

[3] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (a)(2);     (9)

[4] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (b)(1)

[5] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (b)(2)

[6] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (b)(3)

[7] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (c)

[8] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (d)

[9] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (f)

[10] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (g)

[11] Tenn. Code § 68-11-255 (e); Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (b)

[12] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (e)(1)

[13] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (e)(2)

[14] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (e)(3)

[15] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (d)(1)

[16] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (d)(2)

[17] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (f)

[18] Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-142 (c)


Inside Tennessee Safe Haven Laws