Safe Haven Legislation
In 1999, Texas became the first state in the U.S. to enact a “Baby Moses” or safe haven law. During the previous year, a shocking thirteen newborns were found abandoned to trash cans or left on doorsteps over a ten-month period in the Houston-metro area alone. Other states quickly followed Texas’s example. In less than ten years, all fifty states and Puerto Rico had passed similar laws.
What are Safe Haven Laws?
The intent of safe haven laws is to save the lives of newborns whose mothers had concealed their pregnancies and given birth alone. Rather than dumping those newborns into the trash in an attempt to hide the evidence of a birth, these laws give mothers an opportunity to anonymously abandon their babies safely without fear of prosecution.
Safe haven laws vary from state to state as to their specifics, but they share general characteristics:
- • The birth mother must hand over her live baby to personnel at a “safe haven,” commonly defined as a hospital, emergency treatment facility, or police or fire station.
- • The birth mother is often shielded from prosecution for abandonment or neglect charges, provided the newborn shows no signs of abuse.
- • The birth mother plans to give up her parental rights and not use the “safe haven” as a form of temporary foster care.
- • The baby is surrendered within the state’s age limit requirements. Most common is within seventy-two hours of birth, but some states allow for up to a year.
- • Most states permit the birth mother to remain completely anonymous, though some states may ask her to voluntarily provide medical information (such as whether she was a drug user or had any known health conditions that the baby may have inherited).
- • Most states don’t have funding available to promote awareness about the law, so nonprofit groups have sprung up to meet the need, relying on volunteers and charitable donations.
How can I get help? Or learn more? Or get involved?
The following organizations exist to bring awareness to the issue:
The National Safe Haven Alliance (www.NationalSafeHavenAlliance.org). This Web site includes basic information about safe haven legislation and contains help resources including a hotline number (1-888-510-BABY (2229)) where callers can get assistance 24/7 anywhere in the United States. Screeners direct callers to local crisis pregnancy centers and authorized safe havens by zip code.
A Safe Haven for Newborns (www.asafehavenfornewborns.com/laws.asp). This site details basic safe haven legislation by state, including state-specific definitions for “safe haven,” local hotline numbers, local programs dedicated to baby abandonment issues and awareness, and state-specific protections given to relinquishing birth parents.
Newborn Lifeline (www.yournewbornlifeline.com) is another site that details information about safe haven legislation by state and hosts a hotline number (1-866-694-2229) that provides assistance 24/7 to callers in crisis nation-wide.
Save Abandoned Babies (www.SaveAbandonedBabies.org) is a program specific to the state of Illinois, but the site has great teaching tools, posters and brochures, and other information.
A Secret Safe Place for Newborns (www.secretsafeplacetn.org) is a program specific to the state of Tennessee, but the site has downloadable information packets, teaching tools, and other resources.
George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, signed Texas’s “Baby Moses” law into effect on June 3, 1999.
A few states’ safe haven laws allow for birth fathers or other designated persons (such as a mother or friend) to abandon the baby. In such cases, the birth mother may have been physically too weak or otherwise unable to take the baby herself (such as having no available transportation).
Some states also define “safe haven” as crisis pregnancy centers, churches, and, in Louisiana, even 911 operators (when the mother arranges to leave her baby at a specific location).
Most states allow the birth mothers to change their minds and, after extensive therapy and mandatory parenting classes, regain custody of their abandoned babies. Some states actually give the birth mothers identification bracelets during the infant handover that will match them to their abandoned babies.