Safe Haven Laws for Abandoned Babies

Child Safety Basics

Safe Haven laws can help save babies that might be abandoned to dumpsters and trash cans.
Safe Haven laws can help save babies that might be abandoned to dumpsters and trash cans. Photo by Mehmed Zelkovic

Abandoned Babies

Unfortunately, the problem of new mothers abandoning their babies, typically in unsafe places where they may not be found, is not uncommon.

Although the exact numbers are not known, a survey of the HHS Administration for Children and Families found that 65 babies were abandoned in public places in 1991 and 105 in 1998. They also found that 8 of those infants were found dead in 1991, which increased to 33 in 1998.

Safe Haven Laws

In response to these abandonment cases and a group of 13 abandoned babies in Houston in 1999, Texas lawmakers adopted a Safe Haven or "Baby Moses" law so that mothers could leave a baby in a safe place without having to worry that they would go to jail.

Now nationwide, all 50 states have safe haven laws, with Alaska and Nebraska enacting their own safe haven laws in 2008. You should look at your own state's Safe Haven Law for more details, as they do vary from state to state.

In general, Safe Haven Laws allow a parent to anonymously leave an unwanted newborn baby in a safe place, such as a hospital, emergency medical services, police station, or fire station, and not have to worry about getting in trouble. The baby will then be given to the state's child welfare department.

Do Safe Haven Laws Work?

Unfortunately, so far, they don't seem to be having much of an impact on babies being abandoned in unsafe places.

That may be because many Safe Haven Laws are not very well publicized and few people, especially the very young mothers who typically abandon babies, seem to know about them.

Increased publicity, so that people actually know this option is available, may help to make sure that unwanted babies are left in a safe place and not abandoned where they may not be found until it is too late.

Unfortunately, most of the laws didn't come with any funding to publicize that they had been enacted or where the safe haven zones actually were.

Safe Haven Laws in the News

And when safe haven laws do receive publicity, it usually isn't positive.

Nebraska's safe haven has probably received the most publicity out of all safe haven programs, however, it is not because of all of the babies they were saving. Nebraska's safe haven law did not specify an age limit for which children could be dropped off, which resulted in 35 children being left for safe haven protection, most kids over age 10. Nebraska's safe haven law has since been revised to place an age limitation to protect only newborns ​so that children over age 30 days old can not be dropped off.

Rehoming has also been getting a lot of negative publicity lately. Unlike safe haven laws, there aren't laws against rehoming in many states. Justin Harris, a state legislator is Arkansas, for example, recently rehomed or gave away two of his adopted children.

And we still hear about when Safe Haven laws didn't work, like when:

  • a newborn baby was rescued from an apartment complex dumpster in Washington state
  • a newborn baby girl who was found abandoned in Mesa, Arizona in a carrier on an irrigation box
  • a 3-day old who was found abandoned in a hole by a river bed despite having been born in a hospital in California
  • a newborn baby who was left at a dentist's office in Georgia

But many babies are being saved, including three in Connecticut, at least two in Indiana, and at least 25 babies in Massachusetts in the past 5 years.

Sources

Administration for Children and Families. Statistics on Abandoned Babies - Preliminary National Statistics.

NCSL State Legislative Report. Safe Havens for Abandoned Infants.

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