Safe Haven Laws Meant to Stop Baby Abandonments, Do They Work?

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 15, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Safe Haven Laws Meant to Stop Baby Abandonments, Do They Work?

by Paul Nowak Staff Writer
July 15, 2004

Washington, DC ( — Safe haven laws allow mothers to leave unwanted children in the hands of care providers with no questions asked and are on the books in most states. While the first law was enacted five years ago to stop a rash of infanticides and baby abandonments, pro-life leaders note there is room for improvement.

Texas was the first state to pass such a law in 1999, called the Baby Moses Law. Under the law, an infant under the age of 60 days can be brought to a hospital, licensed child-placement agency or emergency medical services provider, and provided there are no signs of abuse there is no legal duty to try to identify the parents.

Stacey Emick, Legislative Director of Texas Right to Life, told that at least 19 babies have been legally and safely abandoned since the law took effect, based only on news stories and Child Protective Services calls. The real number may be higher, Emick notes, as CPS does not keep official records.

Emick adds that application of the law could be improved. She cited a recent Houston Chronicle article that followed a case of a legally abandoned child, which was left by the mother at a hospital. CPS actively sought out the parents through the announcements and news stories to try to locate the mother and father and verify that they did indeed intend to sever their parental rights.

“Texas Right to Life, and the legislators who crafted the bill, fear that such pursuit of the parents (especially on TV announcements) may discourage desperate mothers from legally leaving their children at emergency locations; her only other option is to secretly leave the baby in an unsafe location, such as a dumpster,” explained Emick. “If the mother was comfortable revealing her identity she would not be abandoning the baby at an emergency location, but would rather go through an adoption agency.”

Emick said the law may need to be tightened, although the current law already states that if the parent does not express intent to return for the child, it is presumed that they are giving up their parental rights.

“In addition, the Baby Moses law could be publicized more effectively statewide so that women are fully aware of their option to turn over the child anonymously at a safe location,” concluded Emick. “Houston has bumper stickers and posters that list a toll-free number and urge women who plan to abandon their babies to take them to a hospital or a fire station where they will be safe.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the number of infants protected through a safe haven law there slightly exceeds the number of illegally abandoned infants. Some 14 babies have been saved so far since the law went into effect in the summer of 2000.

New Jersey is one of forty-four states that passed laws allowing for the legal abandonment of infants and its state House and Senate supported the bill unanimously.

While the legislative findings language of the NJ Safe Haven Infant Protection Act states, "this legislation is worthwhile if it saves even one infant’s life," there is definitely room for improvement in carrying the law out, according to Marie Tasy, Legislative and Public Affairs Director for New Jersey Right to Life.

“It is not enough for states to just pass these laws,” Tasy told “In order for the law to be successful, there needs to be a continued, vigorous educational promotion effort undertaken by the state."

In New Jersey, Tasy said, the state legislature has allocated $500,000 each year since the law went into effect to tout it to young parents across the state.

Tasy says New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey needs to do more to make the law a success.

“Since McGreevey has taken office, we have seen a decrease in public promotion and commitment to saving infants’ lives,” said Tasy. “As a result, we have seen an increase in illegal abandonments.”

In California, the number of infants that are illegally abandoned still exceed the number of those safely given up anonymously. Since the Safely Surrendered Baby Law was passed in 2001, 56 babies were legally abandoned, while another 98 have been illegally abandoned, according to the Associated Press.

One recent case involved a 17-year-old who gave birth to her child in a toilet near a lettuce field and left it there. If convicted of attempted murder, she could face up to eight years in prison.

There is difficulty in focusing education efforts when even the demographics of mothers using the program are not recorded.

"It’s all over the map in terms of age, ethnicity, socio-economics … there’s no profile,” Andrew Roth, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, told AP. "All women of childbearing age is a pretty broad demographic.”

There has been improvement, however.

In California in 2001, two babies were legally surrendered and 30 were abandoned. In 2002, 33 infants were illegally abandoned, and the number if children left illegally dropped to 25 in 2003. As of May of 2004, only 10 infants have been abandoned, while it appears that as many as 30 will have been safely left with hospital staff by the end of the year.

Garrison Frost of Los Angeles County’s First 5 commission and a leader in the campaign for the Safely Surrendered Baby Law noted that the law is worth having, even if it saves the minority of unwanted children.

"Every safely surrendered infant is a success,” said Frost.