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Safe haven

To try to prevent tragedy, most US states have now legalized child abandonment, but critics ask if the new laws are saving babies.

The Christian Science Monitor -, July 24, 2003, By Mary Wiltenburg, Staff writer

Wherever their thin cries go up, they make ghoulish headlines. Already this summer, newborns have been abandoned at a Washington, D.C., construction site and on a Pennsylvania roadside. Some have been found dead, others nearly so. Every state has its horror stories.

As of this month, most states have new laws designed to prevent such tragedies. Texas's "Baby Moses" law touched off the trend in 1999, after 13 abandonments in the Houston area in 10 months caused a public outcry. Since then, 45 states have adopted "safe haven" laws, allowing mothers to legally abandon newborns at hospitals and other designated places. They join a number of European countries - France, Germany, Italy, and Luxembourg, among them - that for some years have had similar laws.

Now, as states - Wyoming, most recently - continue to legalize child abandonment, they are coming under fire from adoption advocates and other critics. Though proponents mean well, critics say, the laws undermine established child welfare policy - and after four years, there is no clear evidence that they are helping.

"When I hear advocates say, 'If it saves just one baby's life, isn't it worth it?' I want to say: 'Yes! Of course it's worth it,' " says adoption expert Adam Pertman. "These cases pull so hard at our emotional heartstrings. But are these laws really saving babies? There's no research that says they are. And are they doing anything for their mothers? Yeah: They're sending them away."

What do the laws do?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, three states - Alaska, Nebraska, and Vermont - have not yet considered legalizing infant abandonment. Massachusetts is currently debating the issue, and Hawaii's governor this month became the first in the nation to veto safe- haven legislation.

But the remaining 45 states almost all specify who can legally abandon a newborn (generally parents, though 13 states allow parents' "agents"), where they can be left (at hospitals, often at police and fire stations and churches, and occasionally in the care of a responsible adult), how young the child must be (less than three days in many states, less than 30 days in others, and up to several months in a few), and what legal protection the surrendering parent can expect (immunity from prosecution in about half the states, and a defense if charges are brought in the others).

When parents surrender their infants, almost half the states assign identification bracelets or make other provisions in case they have second thoughts. At the same time, fewer than half are required to offer information to those parents about counseling, support services, adoption, or parental rights. Most galling to adoption advocates is the fact that only 11 state laws require safe-haven personnel to request medical history and other personal information - as required by those states' adoption laws - from the person surrendering the child.

Recently, such concerns have also been at issue in France. The country's 1941 n sous X, or "born under X," law upholds a tradition of unprosecuted abandonment by unidentified mothers begun after the 1789 revolution. Unlike Italy and Luxembourg, France does not require hospitals to record family and medical histories of sous X infants, or allow children access to these records when they reach a certain age.

Last year, one of the approximately 400,000 citizens born under the law challenged it before the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that denying children the right to discover their biological parents' identity violated the European Convention on Human Rights. This February, the court upheld the law by a narrow margin, finding mothers' and children's interests equally valid and "almost impossible to reconcile."

At the other end of the spectrum, since 1999, 25 German cities have installed "Babyklappen," or "baby flaps," on the outside walls of buildings that house day nurseries. Positioned to give abandoning mothers some privacy, a baby flap works something like a video tape return slot, with a heated bed inside. When a baby is placed in the bed, an alarm alerts care providers. According to a study by University of London law professor Katherine O'Donovan, the flaps are not explicitly sanctioned by law, but none has yet been challenged in court.

How effective have they been?

In the US, few states track numbers of publicly abandoned babies. The most recent federal count, a Department of Health and Human Services tally of "discarded infants," was a 1997 newspaper database search that turned up 105 reports of publicly abandoned babies, 33 of them dead. Though these numbers were up from 65 abandoned and eight dead in 1991, the department said the rise might simply reflect heightened media interest. Whatever the exact figures, publicly abandoned infants remain a small fraction of the roughly 4 million born in the US each year.

As disproportionately successful as the infants' plight has proved in prompting new legislation, it has not yet moved most states to examine whether the laws are doing any good. In the single national study on the subject, Nina Williams-Mbengue of the National Conference of State Legislatures surveyed the 16 states that in 2001 had had their laws in effect for a year. Her findings were mixed. At least 33 babies had been relinquished under the laws, but reporting was spotty. More babies seemed to have been illegally abandoned: 35 in all.

Several of those states where babies were illegally abandoned subsequently launched public-awareness campaigns about the laws, and others have followed suit. Earlier this month, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed new legislation requiring all public elementary, junior high, and high school sex-education classes to inform students about the law. But Mr. Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, says the effectiveness of these public campaigns remains unclear. He cites a case in New Jersey where a baby was dropped off next to a billboard advertising the state's safe-haven law.

Yet Tim Jaccard, a medical officer with the Nassau County police who helped write New York's law, says the legislation, coupled with an emergency hotline he operates, has been a success. Last year, he got 179 calls from mothers contemplating abandonment. By referring them to counseling or finding them free, anonymous medical care, he persuaded 123 to keep their babies with family support; another 29 were able to raise their children while living in group homes; 17 placed babies for licensed adoption; and 10 legally surrendered their newborns.

But Anne Marie Lancour, a staff attorney for the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, says hastily passed safe-haven laws are not speeding up the process of finding permanent homes for these children.

In New York State, for example, an abandoned baby will spend six months in foster care before the case can even go to court. If the social worker is on top of things, if the birth parents don't show up at court, if no one appeals the case that terminates their parental rights, and if the courts aren't too busy, the baby might be eligible for adoption by the time it's nine months old. If anything goes wrong, though, it could be in foster care for up to two years.

On the other hand, says Dr. Lancour, if the parents have access to counseling and decide to do what's called "permanency planning" before the birth, in New York the baby will spend its first six months in a preadoptive foster family under court supervision, and if all is well at the end of six months, that will become its permanent home.

"I have to believe that people who make the decision to give up their babies don't want their kids sitting in foster care," she says. "They're trying to do the right thing. They want them to have permanent homes."

Whom are they targeting?

If little effort is going into tallying abandoned infants or studying the effectiveness of the laws passed in their names, even less is going into seeking information about their birth mothers. Mr. Jaccard says that, although he offers to help the women who call his hotline, the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, and gives them cellphones to reach him, "sometimes they just don't want to be found."

New York State Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffman, who sponsored her state's "Abandoned Infant Protection Act," says that, because of the elusiveness of these mothers, her law and comparable ones in other states are based on the assumption that mothers who abandon their babies in public - and thus might be persuaded to leave them in safer places - fit a similar profile to those who commit neonaticide.

Morte is known about these mothers - at least those who get caught. They tend to be girls of about 17, living with their parents, says neonaticide expert Michelle Oberman, professor of law at DePaul University and coauthor of the book "Mothers Who Kill Their Children." In deep denial about their pregnancies, and often concealing them, they frequently do not seek prenatal care and tend to deliver their babies alone - often at home.

When the babies survive, experts speculate that these young mothers may wind up making a choice as Twyana Davis did seven years ago as a college freshman.

"I gave birth to my daughter in my campus dorm room all alone," Ms. Davis, one of the few young mothers who's spoken to the press about abandoning her baby, told National Public Radio last week. Panicking, the straight-A student put her daughter in a dumpster next to her dorm, then called campus security to report a noise outside her window, hoping they would find the baby. They did, and Davis eventually got custody of her daughter. "[But] when I was pregnant and when I gave birth, I wasn't really thinking rationally enough to say, 'OK, well, after I give birth I'm going to take my daughter to a hospital, or I'm going to take her to a fire station," she told NPR.

Nor, critics worry, are most of the parents who leave their babies in public toilets or put them out with the trash.

"It strains the imagination to think that girls who have been so paralyzed for nine months that they've kept their pregnancy a secret could suddenly pull themselves together postpartum to get safe transportation to a hospital or fire station," says Dr. Oberman. "I think we have to ask: Are these laws really reaching these girls?" If they're not, she says, we need to get busy modifying them so that they do.