Safe Haven Laws

There have been countless stories of mothers leaving their unwanted newborn babies in unsafe places like dumpsters or on the side of roadways, mostly out of fear or desperation. To prevent mothers from abandoning their babies, states have enacted safe haven laws that allow mothers to leave their unwanted babies in designated locations such as hospitals or churches without fear of being charged with a crime.

Safe haven laws, also known as "Baby Moses laws", serve a dual purpose:

  1. to protect unwanted babies from potential harm and safety hazards, and, 
  2. to provide parents an alternative to child abandonment charges.

Currently, all 50 states have safe haven laws on the books, varying between the age limit, persons who may surrender a child, and circumstances required to relinquish an infant child. In most cases, parents can leave newborns in safe locations without having to disclose their identity or without being asked questions.

Designated Safe Haven Locations

Most states outline locations considered 'safe havens.' Generally, locations designated as safe havens are places that provide infant safety and where staff can provide immediate infant care. Depending on the state, designated safe haven locations may include health care clinics, police stations, fire stations, emergency medical technicians (EMT), churches, and other "safe" places a state deems acceptable.

In addition, most states emphasis that parents must relinquish unwanted infants in safe locations, so leaving an infant at the steps of a church when there is reason to believe that no one is there does not qualify.

Furthermore, depending on the state, safe haven providers must take the infant into custody, provide any necessary medical care, and do the following:

  • Inform the parent that by surrendering the child she is releasing the child for adoption
  • Inform the parent that reasonable efforts will be made to locate the non-relinquishing parent (and ask the parent to release the name of the other parent)
  • Encourage the parent to provide relevant family or medical information
  • Transfer the child to a hospital (if safe haven is not a hospital)
  • Have the child examined by a physician (if safe have is a hospital)
  • Notify a child-placing agency

Even so, states typically give immunity to safe haven providers for anything that might happen to the infant while in their care, unless for gross negligence.

Controversies

Safe haven laws have undergone much controversy. Critics believe that safe haven laws encourage easy baby disposal, while supporters believe the laws protect unwanted babies who might otherwise end up in dumpsters or along public roads. Furthermore, some critics argue that if the laws are too broad (like those previously in Nebraska) states will end up with unintended consequences - such as parents who leave older children and problem teenagers at door steps.

Age Limits

Most states limit the age of who may be placed in a designated 'safe haven' to infants 72 hours old or younger, while other states may accept infants up to 1 month of age.

Who May Relinquish Unwanted Babies

States determine who may leave unwanted babies in a designated location, the obvious being the mother of the child (and sometimes fathers depending on the state laws). In addition, some states allow someone other than a parent to relinquish a child, and a few of those states require that he or she have legal custody of the child to do so. Lastly, a handful of states do not specify the relationship of the person to the infant.

What Happens When You Relinquish an Unwanted Baby

Relinquishing an unwanted baby to the care of a safe haven provider relieves you of any criminal liability, but also relieves you of your parental rights to the child. In some states, you may be required to provide your name and family history (although some states will guarantee this information remains confidential.) Note that you will forfeit your right to anonymity and criminal liability if you have abused or otherwise neglected the child in any way.

You also have the right to be informed by safe haven staff that by surrendering the child, you are releasing the child for adoption and that you have the right to petition the court in your state (within a set time period, like 28 days) to regain custody.

Father's Rights

In most states, a child-placing agency must make "reasonable efforts" to identify and locate the non-relinquishing parent (typically the father) by posting notice in a publication such as a newspaper in the county where the child was surrendered.

Reclaiming Custody

Some states allow parents who change their mind to reclaim custody of a relinquish child within a certain time period after surrender. The procedure for reclaiming custody varies by state, but is typically initiated by filing an action with the court for custody. The court will then determine custody based on the child's best interest. (Note that a parent who surrenders a child and does not file a custody action is presumed to have knowingly released his or her parental rights.)

Additional Resources 

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