Every US state, as you may or may not know, has a safe-haven law that decriminalizes the act of leaving an unharmed infant at a sanctioned location. Such places can include emergency rooms, fire stations, churches, and now—in Indiana—a baby box. These abandoned children become wards of the state and the parents who leave them in someone else’s care are safe from prosecution. But can it be that easy to unburden yourself of a child?
What is a baby box?
The goal of safe-haven laws, sometimes referred to as “Baby Moses laws,” is to make child abandonment easier for mothers who are young, financially struggling, uninformed about or uninterested in adoption, and want to retain their anonymity but still protect the life of their child. “It’s an opportunity for distressed parents to have their newborn baby well cared for without fear of legal repercussions,” says Daniel Simon, attorney and CEO of Simon Mediation in Los Angeles.
In the state of Indiana, the Safe Haven Baby Box is a padded and climate-controlled container for newborns – an incubator, actually – located at a volunteer fire department. Connected to a security system, the box is designed to immediately notify staff when a baby has been placed inside. Though some citizens have balked at the recent announcement of baby boxes, this element of the safe-haven law arguably ensures that unwanted children are left in a secure place to become wards of the state.
But do the baby boxes encourage abandonment?
When mothers change their minds
Given the alternatives, baby boxes can act as a clear safety precaution, helping prevent unwanted infants from ending up in dumpsters, being abandoned in bathrooms, or being unsafely aborted. The safe-haven law is also intended to protect children who might otherwise be left on doorsteps or porches for hours with no attention or knowledge of their presence. According to Dawn Geras, president of the Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation, over 2,800 safe surrenders of children have occurred since 1999. But more than 1,400 other babies have been found illegally abandoned and the majority of these infants died.
Unfortunately, dangerous abandonment occurs because many terrified mothers are unaware of a law that decriminalizes the act of giving up their unharmed child. As a result, there are occasional and sad news reports about a newborn who has been discarded, and the hunt for the mother who has rejected the child.
The baby boxes still leave the door open, however, for any mother who changes her mind about giving her child away. “Complications could arise if the birth mother reconsiders her decision later after the baby has been placed into an adoptive home,” says Simon. “Worst-case scenario, you could have a full-on custody fight and both sides would have strong legal arguments. The question would be what a judge believes is in the best interest of the child. The mother’s choice to drop off the child would probably be held against her, but that certainly wouldn’t be conclusive because courts generally prefer that children be with their biological parents if possible.”
Connecting babies with adults
No doubt every parent has pulled their hair out over their children from time to time, and baby boxes are not intended to be a place to unburden yourself of unruly toddlers or difficult teens. Though certainly some parents have tried to make the law work in their favor. In Nebraska, the safe-haven law was interpreted to define a child as anyone under the age of 18. This resulted in the desertion of teenagers—over 30 children were dropped off at Nebraska hospitals over a four-month period. The law has since been changed, only allowing infants up to 30 days old to be surrendered.
Ultimately, “A parent who is keeping their child for fear of being punished by the law probably isn’t parenting very well,” says Simon, which is why getting the word out about safe-haven laws is so important. And, no doubt, there are good homes to be had for these infants. In a nation where plenty of people struggle to conceive or adopt, enduring pricey rounds of IVF or other fertility attempts, the safe-haven law makes it possible for more children who need loving parents to be connected with adults who have plenty of love to give.