In Federal Way, Washington, a 23-year-old woman who had left her baby on a church doorstep has been sentenced to 200 hours of community service and a deferred two-year term. It’s legal in Washington to leave babies anonymously at fire stations and hospitals but not at churches.
In Medford, the mother of a newborn baby found dead inside a dumpster at hotel was recently indicted on charges of abuse of a corpse and concealing the birth of an infant. In Oregon, it’s legal to abandon an infant in its first 30 days of life at hospitals, birthing centers, physicians’ offices, sheriffs’ offices and police stations. Dumpsters are not a legal option.
And in Sacramento, California, a teenager left her baby with a stranger at a local bus station Even though the police initially reported that the teenager tried to “do the right thing”, the law says she can be arrested and prosecuted for felony child endangerment because the only legally recognized infant safe haven sites in Sacramento are hospital emergency rooms and fire stations. Bus stops don’t qualify.
All 50 state legislatures have enacted legislation to address infant abandonment in response to a reported increase in the abandonment of infants. Beginning in Texas in 1999, “Baby Moses laws” or “infant safe haven” laws have been enacted as an option for mothers in crisis to safely surrender their babies to designated locations where the babies will be protected and provided with medical care until a permanent home can be found.
According to the Responsibility Project, safe haven laws generally allow the parent to remain anonymous and to be shielded from prosecution for abandonment or neglect in exchange for surrendering the baby to a safe haven. In most States with safe haven laws, either parent may surrender his or her baby to a safe haven.
Safe haven laws were enacted to ensure that surrendered infants are left with qualified persons who can provide for their immediate care and protection. According to the Responsibility Project, approximately eight states require parents to surrender their infants to a hospital. Other states designate additional safe haven providers, including emergency medical services, police stations, and fire stations. Only four states (Arizona, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Vermont) allow churches to act as safe havens.
Approximately 18 States have procedures in place for a parent to reclaim the infant, usually within a specified time period and before any petition to terminate parental rights has been granted.
Religious Tolerance highlighted a report issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute for the National Conference of State Legislatures which called into question the effectiveness of safe haven laws. The report concluded that the laws have caused a number of undesirable results and deficiencies, including the following:
• “By providing a ‘no hassle’ route for ending parental responsibility, safe-haven laws encourage mothers to conceal their pregnancies, give birth unsafely, and leave their children anonymously, undermining established and effective child welfare and adoption policy.”
• The laws legitimize the abandonment of babies as an acceptable practice.
• Children who are abandoned generally have little hope of ever learning of their medical and genealogical history.
• Most of the laws allow for only one parent to abandon a child, thus stripping all rights from the other parent.
• Many states pass safe haven laws but do not provide adequate funding to advertise the provisions of the law to the public.
Tom Atwood, of the National Council for Adoption, disagrees. He asserts in a Religious Tolerance interview that these laws are in fact saving lives and posed the question: “Just how many babies do these laws have to rescue from death in a dumpster in order to be worthwhile?”