In the biblical story of Moses, his mother stashes him in a basket and places it in the Nile River so he will not be murdered as ordered by Pharaoh. Moses’s mother chose the spot to leave him because it was a location frequented by bathers, including the Pharaoh’s own daughter. Baby Moses was found, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and grew to be a leader who rescued his people from bondage. Today, Baby Moses Laws are on the books to provide a safe location for infants to be left by parents unwilling or unable to care for them, thus allowing the opportunity for the child to find a forever home.
Why are such laws needed since prospective adoptive parents abound? Baby Moses Laws, also known as Safe Haven Laws, are an attempt to reduce the surge in the number of abandoned babies. Often, the pregnancy was kept secret from the biological mother’s family, and she feels compelled to keep it that way by dumping her child, sometimes literally.
A June 2019 abandonment case in Forsyth County, Georgia, received national media coverage because the newborn girl’s rescue was captured on video by the bodycam of a law enforcement officer. Responding to a late night report of the sound of a baby crying in the woods, officers discovered an infant wrapped in a plastic grocery bag which had been dumped in a wooded area. The dramatic video went viral. The baby, whose umbilical cord was still attached at the time of her rescue, received immediate medical care, was transported to the hospital, and survived. Hospital staff dubbed the rescued infant Baby India; she was placed in foster care by Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services pending adoption.
Sadly, this story is not an isolated one. Child advocates report that approximately 150 babies in the United States are abandoned each year. These unwanted babies have been tossed down trash chutes, thrown in dumpsters, and left in toilets. Even sadder, not all of those abandoned babies survived. According to the Baby Moses Project’s website, a 1998 study reported that 108 newborns had been abandoned with 33 of them dying. Unfortunately, it is believed that this study significantly underrepresented the scope and severity of the practice of abandonment of babies.
To combat this growing and alarming problem, Safe Haven Laws were proposed. Legislators were concerned that babies were being abandoned in unsafe locations such as the side of the road, a dumpster, or a public restroom and sought to provide the biological parent with a viable alternative. Safe Haven Laws had a dual purpose. First, they aimed to protect babies from harm. Second, they offered birth parents an alternative to facing charges of child abandonment.
The country’s first newborn abandonment bill was signed into law on June 6, 1999, by future president and then current governor of Texas, George W. Bush. By 2008 all 50 states had enacted Safe Haven Laws with Nebraska being the 50th and last state to do so. In addition, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have enacted such legislation.
Baby Moses or Safe Haven Laws allow a biological parent to leave an infant at a designated location, typically a hospital, police station, or fire station, with no negative consequences as long as the child has not been harmed. These laws expressly allow the parent to remain anonymous and to be shielded from prosecution for abandonment.
While their aim is to do good, Safe Haven Laws have received criticism. To some, offering a legal abandonment option promotes easy baby disposal and irresponsibility. Proponents counter that not offering this option means babies may be abandoned in locations where they may not be found, thus resulting in their death. In the view of Safe Haven Law proponents, preserving an innocent child’s life is a higher priority than any promotion of irresponsibility, assuming that indeed occurs. Another criticism of these laws is that when a child is left anonymously in this manner, the state has little or no background or family medical history. Nevertheless, lack of such information is often an issue in international adoptions, but those types of adoptions regularly go forward with successful results.
What happens to babies surrendered by a parent under the provisions of a Safe Haven Law? Although the laws vary from state to state, usually custody of the relinquished infant goes to the state’s child welfare department. Steps are taken to legally terminate the parental rights of the birth parents; then the child may be legally adopted. While the biological parent may not be in a position to raise the child due to age, financial circumstances, etc., numerous prospective adoptive couples are available, ready, and willing to take placement of such a baby.
Existing Safe Haven Laws address the conditions for the relinquishment of an unwanted child. The age of the child, the identity of who may relinquish the child, and the location where the child may be relinquished are specified. Since these laws are state laws, the requirements will vary by state.
Designating a location where a baby may permissibly be left addresses the concern of the child’s safety and welfare. The aim is to ensure relinquished infants are turned over to individuals who can immediately provide for the child’s safety and well-being. As a result, hospitals, who are able to provide medical care, are approved Safe Haven providers in every state. Fire stations are also often designated as authorized drop points. A handful of states allow infants to be relinquished at a church; however, before the baby may be left, the parent must determine that church personnel are present. Some Safe Haven Laws require the biological parent to physically place the child in the hands of an employee on duty at the Safe Haven location.
Fans of the hit NBC series This Is Us have been exposed to the idea of a safe haven placement. In that show, Randall, of “The Big Three,” was abandoned at a fire station by his biological father; a fireman then brought Randall to the hospital for care. In that safe location, Randall was spotted by Jack who, with his wife Rebecca, had just lost one of their triplet infants; husband and wife decided to adopt the abandoned baby and take home three babies as originally planned.
With regard to the age of the child permitted to be left, Safe Haven Laws generally limit this option to very young children. In some states, a very small window of opportunity exists. In Arizona, California, and Hawaii, for example, the child can only be up to three days old; similarly, Florida and North Carolina allow relinquishment of a child only up to seven days old. Alaska is a bit more expansive with up to 21 days for relinquishment. New York and Ohio allow relinquishment up to 30 days while South Carolina and Texas authorize relinquishment up to 60 days old. Despite the diversity in these laws as to the exact age of the child allowed to be relinquished, the common thread is that the age is only a matter of a few days or weeks.
In most states, Safe Haven Laws permit either biological parent to surrender the baby. However, in a few states, only the biological mother may drop off her baby in this manner. While almost all states expressly state who may turn over a baby, several states do not so specify.
Once a baby is relinquished under a Safe Haven Law, the goal is to place the child in a permanent family setting through adoption. In order for an adoption to occur, parental rights must first be terminated. Typically, the biological parent’s surrender of the child is deemed equivalent to consent to having her rights terminated for the child’s ultimate adoption. Some states have procedures in place for a relinquished infant to be reclaimed by the biological parent. Where reclamation is authorized, a time limit is usually imposed for doing so, and this reclamation must be sought before parental rights are terminated.
Safe Haven Laws have saved babies’ lives thereby allowing prospective adoptive parents to adopt. Reports indicate that more than 3,500 babies have been surrendered through Safe Haven Laws across the country since the first such law became effective in Texas in 1999. But the existence of these laws has not entirely eliminated the problem of abandonment of babies; according to Safe Haven advocates, over 1,400 babies were found abandoned since then as well.
The lack of public awareness of Safe Haven Laws has limited the effectiveness of the law. Despite their existence on the books, abandonment of infants in unsafe places still occurs. Take the June 2019 abandonment of Baby India in a wooded area. The State of Georgia has a Safe Haven Law in existence; yet, the baby’s biological mother did not take advantage of that option, likely because she did not know about it. Only because of “divine intervention,” according to Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman, was Baby India located and rescued.
The National Safe Haven Alliance (“NSHA”) works to publicize the existence and provisions of Safe Haven Laws which, the organization believes, gives desperate parents a responsible alternative. Its website claims over 4,000 babies have been saved to date because of the existence of these laws. One way NSHA provides information is to offer an interactive map on its website. This map, which can be found here, allows a site visitor to click on a specific state to pull up information on the requirements of that state’s Safe Haven Law. Information available includes where a child may permissibly be left and the applicable age requirement.
A recent development with Safe Haven Laws is the use of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. These boxes are essentially incubators with alarm systems that notify 911 as soon as a baby is placed inside the box. The boxes are an effort to provide anonymity to a biological parent who may be afraid of the face-to-face interaction required to physically hand over a child; at the same time, these boxes provide a safe and secure location where a baby may be left. To achieve this result, the boxes are accessible from outside the Safe Haven location and utilize silent alarms, allowing the parent confidentiality in placing the child there. More than 62 babies are reported to have been saved to date by the use of these boxes.
Currently, over two dozen Safe Haven Baby Boxes are scattered throughout the United States. The state of Indiana is the site of most of these boxes with more than 19 placed there; additional boxes are planned for installation in the near future. Existence of Safe Haven Baby Boxes has provided a viable option for desperate birth mothers. A healthy baby was surrendered in a Safe Haven Baby Box at a fire station in Crown Point, Indiana, on December 5, 2019. The box utilized for the surrender had only been installed at that location the previous month, and the baby placed in the baby box was the fourth newborn to be placed in such a box in less than two years in Indiana.
Safe Haven Laws are legal measures which expressly aim to save the lives of babies whose parents are unwilling or unable to raise them by offering a safe place where the child can be found and cared for. But the impact of these laws extends beyond this goal and positively impacts all affected. Not only are babies’ lives saved, but they are given a chance at a wonderful life in a permanent adoptive home. Biological parents are relieved from the possibility of criminal charges of child abandonment, allowing them to focus on other issues that may have made them unable to raise their own child. First responders will have to face less tragic situations because babies are being surrendered at safe locations rather than being abandoned in dumpsters, the woods, or other perilous locations. Finally, prospective adoptive parents, who are aware that there are more people looking to adopt than there are babies available for adoption, are given more opportunities for a successful placement. A “safe haven” placement for Baby Moses led to a happy ending for him. Use of Safe Haven Laws today should lead to happy endings for infants in peril as well as positive outcomes for others involved, including, ultimately, their adoptive parents.