UPDATE: More States Decriminalize Safe Baby Abandonment

Connecticut parents looking for someplace to turn when they cannot care for a newborn will have one more option this October. That's when a new law designed to give distraught parents a safe place to leave an unwanted baby without fear of prosecution takes effect, making Connecticut the sixth state to adopt the policy this year.

Child welfare and adoption advocates continue to question whether the establishment of "safe havens" is the best answer to the problem of abandoned newborns, but the idea is catching fire in state legislatures. In February, stateline.org reported that seven states were considering abandoned baby laws; that number has now climbed to at least 23.
Still more are likely to take up the debate, according to analysts at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "We haven't seen the end of it because we keep seeing infants being abandoned in unsafe places," said Nina Williams-Mbengue.

She notes that the idea has snowballed as lawmakers react to media accounts of both abandonments in their home states and the passage of measures elsewhere.

Since mid-April, Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia have enacted abandoned baby or "safe haven" laws, often in response to tragic stories of infants left in dumpsters, alleyways, shallow graves, public restrooms or parking lots. Similar bills await decisions from the governors of Florida and South Carolina and both houses of the California Legislature passed twin measures within the last week.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York took early action on abandoned baby bills and the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force recommended it as part of a larger package of child safety measures.Williams-Mbengue said NCSL should have an updated list of states mulling the proposal sometime next week.

Last year, Texas enacted the nation's first "safe haven" bill, modeled in part after local clinics' programs in Alabama and Minnesota. The Texas law allows hospital medical personnel to accept infants up to one month old from parents who voluntarily bring them to emergency facilities and relinquish care. The hospital must notify the state Department of Protective and Regulatory Services before the end of the following day, at which point DPRS assumes care of the infant as it would any other abandoned child.

Early community-based programs allowed parents anonymity in order to soothe the fears of parents who may otherwise have considered more drastic alternatives. But in Texas, the family code and DPRS regulations require medical personnel to make "good faith efforts" to establish the parents' identity and the child's medical history, Kingsberry Otto, the department's director of government relations, told stateline.org in February.

Variations on the Texas law include:

  • The age of children who may be legally abandoned. The California bills protect only the parents of children who are three days old or younger.
  • The length of the period in which birth parents may change their minds. Proposals vary widely, from two weeks to 90 days.
  • The location of the abandonment. While Texas specifies hospital emergency rooms, other measures include police stations and firehouses.
  • The nature of the protection given birth parents. So far, Williams-Mbengue says, only Minnesota extends full immunity to parents who abandon their children lawfully. Other states offer an affirmative defense to shield parents after charges are filed.

Though some children were left with caregivers under the local initiatives, no Texas parents have yet come forward to try the program out. That confirms the doubts of critics, who continue to see safe havens as an ineffective, or even dangerous, feel-good effort to tackle a complex problem.

While safe havens have drawn support from a broad range of groups including Planned Parenthood, the California Pro-Life Council and the California Healthcare Association in the Golden State many child advocacy organization lodge deep reservations. At least one group, the American Adoption Congress, spells out their objections on their Web site.

One worry is that promises of anonymity may foster abductions. Another is that the law will encourage abandonment by parents who might otherwise be inclined to take full responsibility for their child. Then there is the problem of medical records.

"The tradeoff is that the baby has no identity. The baby has no medical history. In theory, it sounds like a wonderful thing to do, but in fact it is a dangerous bill if the babies are left recordless." says AAC president Jane Nast, an adoptive mother of two.

Lawmakers themselves often recognize these complications. Responding to the story of a child abandoned that same week in Worcester, Mass., two state lawmakers acknowledged problems but said lifesaving trumped them when they filed the "Baby May" bill last month. Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist endorsed the same idea with some misgivings.

"We don't want to encourage abandonment, but we don't want to encourage murder either," he said.

Williams-Mbengue said that despite the swell of support for the laws, such sentiments are echoed in legislatures around the country. "We don't really know if it will be effective or not. We don't seem to know a lot about this whole issue," she said.