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Unintended Consequences: "Safe Haven" Laws Are Causing Problems, Not Solving Them.

Annette Baran. Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, March 2003.

In recent years, most states in the U.S. have enacted "safe haven" laws intended to prevent the unsafe abandonment of infants. This report, written by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and published in 2003, questions the efficacy of the laws and makes recommendations for alternative methods of preventing abandonments.

Forty-two states have enacted "safe haven" laws since 1999. These laws are intended to allow parents to leave their newborns at designated safe places, including hospitals and police stations, while guaranteeing those parents anonymity and freedom from prosecution. As an example, Arizona's law states that a person may anonymously leave an unharmed newborn infant who is seventy-two hours old or younger with a designated safe haven provider (such as a firefighter who is on duty) without answering any questions and such person is not guilty of child abuse (Arizona Revised Statute Section 13-3623.01). This report:

  • addresses the lack of research undertaken prior to the enactment of the laws and questions the efficacy of the laws;
  • concludes that the laws are deficient and inconsistent with well-established child welfare policy;
  • calls for meaningful data collection concerning infant abandonment; and
  • calls for a commitment of resources aimed at identifying and assisting women who conceal their pregnancies.

Enactment of Safe Haven Laws and the Causes of Abandonment
The report, written by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, is sharply critical of the manner in which states enacted safe haven laws without first conducting research to determine the causes of abandonment (Davidson, 2000). Safe haven laws presuppose that women will not unsafely abandon their infants if they are guaranteed anonymity and freedom from prosecution. The abandonment laws attempt to respond to this. But if-as the author suggests-- women in fact abandon their infants because they are acting out of panic and are plagued by denial and desperation, abandonment laws fail to address the actual problem. The author cites social science research on women who commit neonaticide (the murder of newborns on their first day of life, including abandonments that result in death) to support her assertion that mothers who abandon their infants are often young women who hide their pregnancies and are in such a state of denial that they are unable to respond thoughtfully to the pregnancy (Meyer, C. & Oberman, M. 2001; Oberman 1996). The author contends that this class of women would lack the clarity of thought to seek out a safe haven site and that these laws, therefore, do little to prevent women from abandoning infants.

Lack of Accurate Information Concerning Effectiveness
The author points out that few, if any, states are engaged in data collection which would permit an evaluation of the effectiveness of the safe haven laws in preventing unsafe abandonments. There are no data, for example, to show the number of abandonments before the enactment and the number of illegal, unsafe abandonments and legal abandonments at safe havens after the enactment. Nor is there any way of knowing whether the parents who abandon infants at safe havens would have otherwise deserted the infants unsafely or would have placed the children for adoption. The author concludes that the evidence of the laws' effectiveness is "inconclusive at best." According to the author, news accounts suggest that females continue to abandon newborns in unsafe areas, and few newborns are left at designated safe havens. The author indicates that child welfare policy experts such as the Child Welfare League of America are concerned that women who would unsafely abandon their newborns are not leaving their newborns at safe havens, but are continuing to abandon their newborns unsafely. The anonymity provision of the laws makes it difficult to determine whether the people who are taking advantage of the laws would have otherwise left their infants in unsafe places or might have made adoption plans.

Safe Haven Laws May Create Problems
The author suggests that the laws actually create problems. For example, the laws may encourage women who would not otherwise have abandoned their infants to conceal their pregnancies and then abandon their newborns. The author states that women -having learned of the laws-may opt to abandon their infants because that option seems "'easier' than receiving parenting counseling or making an adoption plan."

Law's Relation to Abuse and Neglect and Adoption Policy
According to the author, anonymous legal abandonment is inconsistent with-and often undermines-- public policies which promote the safety and welfare of newborns and their mothers, and is inconsistent with existing adoption policy. The author states that many states' laws "inadequately address birth parent or children's rights, or do not address them at all. These include termination of parental rights, facilitating the adoption of abandoned infants, and collecting medical and social histories that enable future access to critical information about health, genealogy and origins." For instance, the anonymity provisions preclude the voluntary termination of parental rights and consent to adoption. FurtherRead More ..the laws disregard the due process rights of fathers to notification of termination of parental rights proceedings and adoption and may result in delayed adoptive placements and extended stays in foster care as state requirements are met. More over, the failure of most laws to mandate efforts to collect medical information runs counter to child welfare policy.

Suggesting that abandonment is a panicked response to a concealed pregnancy, the author encourages resources to be directed toward work focusing on avoiding unintended pregnancies and identifying attempts by young women to conceal their pregnancies. Further, the author proposes additional work aimed at ensuring that women facing unintended pregnancies receive prenatal care, give birth in medical settings, and receive confidential permanency planning counseling.

The author recommends information collection, research on infant abandonment, and program evaluation. Specifically, the author asserts that any policy aimed at deterring unsafe abandonment should include:

  • research on the causes of infant abandonment;
  • community education focused on identifying concealed pregnancies and how to help affected females;
  • a plan for providing confidential counseling to at-risk pregnant females about prenatal care and alternatives to abandonment; and
  • the availability of educational materials and support services which would help family members raise infants.

The author also suggests parameters for safe haven laws themselves, recommending that such laws should -as an example-require that efforts be made to obtain medical and genetic family histories.

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Meyer, C. & Oberman, M. (2001). Mothers Who Kill Their Children, New York University Press.

Oberman, M. (1996, Fall). Mothers Who Kill: Coming To Terms With Modern American Infanticide, 34 American Criminal Law Review 1.