(WOMENSENEWS)–In Brooklyn, N.Y., an abandoned baby recently was mauled by a dog; another was found on a trash conveyor belt. In Queens, N.Y., a 15-year-old was charged with killing her newborn and dumping it in a sewer.
Across the country, mothers, many of them distraught teen-agers, abandon their babies with some regularity because they cannot or will not care for them. In a famous New Jersey case, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson were charged with slaying their newborn son in 1996–they tossed him into a garbage container.
No one knows how many babies are abandoned, the evidence is largely anecdotal. Numerous “safe haven” laws have been enacted, in order to encourage frightened mothers to place their children in safe places, no questions asked. Yet, their effectiveness is far from certain.
Experts say many are cases of “porcelain deliveries.”
Typical scenario: A panic-stricken 17-year-old gives birth unexpectedly while sitting on a toilet. The mother tosses her baby in a plastic bag, where it suffocates. The body is found a few days later, and the mother is identified, arrested and charged with murder.
This happened recently in Tamarac, Fla., but it could have been anywhere. No central authority records the number of infants killed or abandoned in the first days of life, but estimates range from 100 to 350 babies out of about 4 million live births a year.
Some people think that the numbers of murdered newborns who are never discovered is much higher. Rare or not, the heart-wrenching images of tiny bodies being retrieved from dumpsters, parks and rivers invariably provoke public outrage and anguish.
Responding to well-publicized cases of infant abandonment, state legislatures nationwide have enacted measures that may be desperate in their own right.
Baby Moses Laws Are Sweeping the Country
In the past two years, about half of state legislatures have passed safe haven or “Baby Moses” laws, and most of the rest are considering them. These laws offer protection from prosecution to parents who surrender their newborn infants to an authorized person, usually a hospital worker, emergency medical technician or a firefighter. In most cases, the parent is then free to walk away, no questions asked.
The theory behind these laws is that it is young women who have concealed their pregnancies from family and friends who are most likely to panic and harm or abandon their babies once they are born. If these young mothers are able to leave or deliver their babies in a safe place, while still keeping their pregnancies secret, their babies’ lives might be saved.
Advocates believe that these laws will enable frightened young mothers, desperate to conceal their pregnancies, to surrender their infants before they are tempted to hurt or abandon them. But critics say that these laws are poorly conceived and poorly thought-out measures that deprive infants, mothers and fathers of basic rights and needed services.
Moreover, they question whether these laws are really targeting the mothers most likely to harm their babies.
Safe haven laws vary state to state. Some offer full immunity from prosecution to a parent who surrenders her child within a designated number of days from birth, usually from three to 30 days. Others, such as New York, offer only an affirmative defense–meaning that, should a district attorney decide to prosecute her for criminal abandonment of an infant, the mother will have a basis for a defense. Usually, after a period of a few weeks after drop-off, the parent’s rights are terminated and the child is placed for adoption.
Anonymity Is Key Element
The most controversial aspect of safe haven policies is the offer of anonymity to the parent. While not all laws specifically promise anonymity to the mother, in general, the parent is not obliged to give any identifying information, such as her name, the name of the father or any medical or family history.
Advocates argue that anonymity is crucial to the success of safe haven programs. They believe that forcing the mother to give any information whatsoever might create a barrier that would discourage at least some mothers from surrendering their babies, thus putting their babies at risk of harm.
“I will go to jail before I reveal the name of a mother,” vows Tim Jaccard, founder of AMT Children of Hope Foundation, which operates a safe haven hotline in Nassau County, New York.
Since he started his foundation three years ago he has buried 30 abandoned babies. Jaccard goes to court seeking custody of the body, names the child and arranges for a church service and burial.
Since New York State’s safe haven law was passed last July, three babies have been surrendered to Jaccard personally. Statewide, 11 babies were surrendered last year and eight this year, Jaccard said. Last year in Nassau County, there were six “porcelain” deliveries in which girls delivered on the toilet and babies drowned, he said.
Jaccard, a strong supporter of the safe haven laws, describes the 19 babies surrendered under the safe haven law as having been “rescued.” However, others question whether the babies who were surrendered were the same as those who might otherwise have been abandoned.
But fathers’ rights advocate Jeffery M. Leving, a Chicago attorney and author of “Fathers’ Rights,” published by Basic Books, argues that safe haven laws, by side-stepping any requirement that a father’s consent be obtained, allows a mother to “annihilate” the father-child relationship.
And adoptee rights advocate Jane Nast, past-president of the American Adoption Congress, based in Washington, D.C., points out that anonymity will permanently deprive the child of any knowledge about his or her genetic and medical history.
Anonymity may also make it impossible to know if the laws are reaching the women they are intended to reach: women who might otherwise harm their babies.
One Important Question: Are You the Mother?
“It is very possible,” said Joyce Johnson, a spokesperson for the Child Welfare League, a Washington, D.C., child advocacy group, “that the mother who gives birth at home, cuts the cord, cleans the baby and bundles it up and takes it to the hospital is a very different kind of mother from the one who drops it in a trash bag and then puts it in a trash bin.
“There may be domestic violence involved, or incest,” added Johnson. “The point is, we don’t know because we’re not asking the questions.”
Although the Child Welfare League has not taken any formal position either for or against safe haven laws, Johnson believes some questions must be asked of any woman about to surrender an infant, basic medical questions affecting the health of both the mother and infant, such as whether the mother has delivered the afterbirth.
And, she pointed out, one very important question is, “Are you the mother of this baby?”
The rush to pass safe haven laws is abating in some states, however, as concerns about their wisdom grows.
The Maine state legislature, for one, has decided to postpone consideration of its safe haven law until next year. Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the legislature was troubled by issues of father’s rights, mother’s rights and the infant’s right to biological history, as well as concerns about the feasibility of offering true anonymity to mothers.
“We think there is a need to think things through a little more,” she said.
Kristin Choo is a free-lance writer in New York.
For more information, visit:
National Conference of State Legislatures:
AMT Children of Hope Foundation:
The Baby Moses Project:
American Adoption Congress:
Jeffery M. Leving: