A Safe Haven law is a provision making it possible for infants to be safely relinquished into the hands of a responsible adult in the event that a woman is unable to care for her newborn child. All 50 states have passed safe haven laws, Nebraska and Alaska being the most recent. Having recently been a resident of North Carolina, I am personally most familiar with that state’s safe haven law, called Safe Surrender.
The District of Columbia is the only part of the United States without a Safe Haven provision.
The safe haven movement began in the late 1990’s in response to a rising number of infant abandonments across the country. In a disturbingly familiar pattern, struggling and frightened mothers, unable to support a newborn child and fearful of the consequences of giving birth, would abandon their newborn children, without protection, without hope of survival. In many cases these infants would perish from exposure to the elements, starvation or dehydration.
In response, safe haven laws were created and passed to allow adults, usually mothers, to relinquish a baby anonymously into the hands of a responsible adult, in most cases at hospitals, police stations or fire stations, without fear of reprisal or prosecution. Since their creation, safe haven laws have been utilized in hundreds of cases, saving countless lives.
That’s all well and good, and I still believe what I said a couple of years ago when I wrote that “for those cases where the mother has slipped through the cracks -- and has a screaming, newborn infant on her hands -- the Safe Surrender law is the best way to save as many children as possible.”
But you have to write the statute correctly. If not, you wind up with a classic case of unintended consequences.
Case in point. Nebraska recently passed its own safe haven law, becoming the 49th state to do so. Unlike every single other state, though, Nebraska legislators couldn’t seem to agree on an age limit for the children. The maximum age for surrender under these laws varies by state, from as short as 72 hours to as long as 30 days. Most states fall within the 7-10 day range.
So the Nebraska politicians had to decide. Should it be 72 hours? Why not a week? How about a month?
A weighty question apparently beyond the ability of the Nebraska legislature to decide. So you know what? They decided not to decide. Instead, they just wrote the law so that it applies to any “child,” which in Nebraska means anyone under the age of nineteen.
The cynical among you can probably see where this is going already.
Since Nebraska’s safe haven law went into effect in July 2008, 34 children have been legally abandoned. But 20 of those “children” have been teenagers. Some of them from out-of-state.
Feel free to file this under “WTF.”
A Detroit, Michigan mother drove more than 12 hours with her 13-year old son in the seat beside her, summarily dropped him off at Creighton Medical Center in Omaha at 1:30 a.m., and never came back. That child, along with dozens of other children abandoned under the Nebraska statute, remains with child protective services while child care experts evaluate whether he becomes a ward of the state.
Thankfully, not a single abandoned child has been returned to the offending parent.
Nebraska legislators are predictably dumbfounded. “This was never the intent of the bill,” sputtered co-author Republican state Senator Arnie Stuthman. In light of the wave of teenage abandonments resulting from his bill, though, Senator Stuthman did manage to concede that the new law is a “mess.”
The Nebraska legislature is expected to revise the law in an emergency session next week.
But should they? This law has done a beautiful job of smoking out dozens of parents who, for whatever reason, are so miserably bad at their job that they would rather dump their kids at a hospital than see it through to their 18th birthday. Do we want these people taking care of these unwanted kids?
Or do we want to give these children, whose parents don’t want them, all the support we can? And that might just mean giving them a chance at a better life, away from their so-called parents.
I don’t know what the right answer is. But I do know what it’s not. And it’s definitely not leaving the children with parents who don’t even want to try anymore.