Young Mothers Find Safe Haven for Unwanted Babies

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In 10 months in 1999, people in Houston found 13 abandoned infants – in trash bins, outside a hotel lobby or stashed under a bridge. Three of them were dead.

That horrid stretch spurred Texas to create the nation’s first law allowing parents to anonymously relinquish an infant to a government employee for adoption. Since then, 34 states have followed with similar laws, which usually allow parents (who are typically young in such cases) to anonymously turn over infants to personnel at a hospital, clinic, police or fire station.

But do the laws prevent the dumping of babies?

The first analysis of abandoned baby laws shows mixed results: A review by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) found that at least 33 babies had been safely relinquished under the laws as of last fall, when the study was done. Still, estimates indicate that most abandonments are done illegally, even in the states with those laws.

Several states with new laws have found more babies on the street than they have received legally. California received four infants legally, but California and Louisiana each has had at least five infants illegally discarded since their laws passed. Texas had legally received five as of the NCSL study, but has reported more than a dozen illegal abandonments since its law passed. And of the 35 states with the laws, babies were legally turned over in only 10.

Getting the Word Out

The few analyses that have been done on safe haven laws suggest that they are far more effective when accompanied by public awareness campaigns.

Michigan’s safe haven law included money for the Michigan Family Independence agency to print 200,000 brochures, which read, “Please Don’t Abandon Your Baby!” The pamphlets were distributed through schools, health workers and police. The state has since received seven babies legally under the law; six others were abandoned improperly or did not qualify under the law’s provisions, according to Maureen Sorbet, spokeswoman for the Michigan Family Independence Agency.

New Jersey’s Department of Human Services spent $500,000 for a toll-free number and publicity materials. It has reported six legally abandoned infants.

Gauging the effectiveness of the laws is difficult because of scant information. Few states track occurrences of illegal infant abandonment, and a number of states with safe haven laws do not require central tracking of the infants they receive.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) introduced a bill (HR 71) that would establish a task force within the Bureau of Justice Statistics to study and report to Congress the incidents of abandonment of infants nationally. Called the Baby Abandonment Prevention Act of 2001, it was referred to the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Select Education in March.

Another bill referred to the same subcommittee would authorize states to use funds from Temporary Aid to Needy Families to support infant safe haven programs. The bill, the Safe Havens Support Act (H.R. 2018), was introduced U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.).

Help for Teen Moms?

In campaigning for political support, many state lawmakers touted their safe haven proposals as a way to deal with teen pregnancy. Media reports about teens delivering and leaving babies in restrooms or hotels reinforced the argument. In one of the most famous cases, a New Jersey girl gave birth in a bathroom during her high school prom in 1997, placed the baby in a plastic bag outside, and returned to eat and dance with her boyfriend. The case endures in public memory as evidence that abandoning mothers are careless, selfish teenagers.

Some adoption advocates also supported the new laws, saying they could expedite the adoption of infants.

But beyond traumatic news stories, few statistics exist about the age or situation of the mothers who abandon. One reason is that anonymity is a key tenet of safe haven laws. Most states give the mothers the opportunity to document the baby’s medical and genetic history at the time the baby changes hands, with the promise that the information will remain confidential.

Based on discussions with state administrators, the NCSL estimates that women who abandon their children are usually young, first-time mothers who keep their pregnancies secret because they fear reactions of their families or boyfriends.

Perhaps no one better knows the mentality of frightened young mothers than Debbe Magnusen, founder and director of Project Cuddle, a Costa Mesa, Calif., nonprofit that runs a national toll-free number ((888) 628-3353) to help prevent abandonment. Magnusen has received hundreds of calls from women who are about to give, or have just given, birth and are scared, confused or unsure of how to care for their children. Project Cuddle says its staff has found or provided medical assistance for the safe delivery of at least 380 babies since 1996.

Magnusen says the average Project Cuddle caller is 21, although she has received calls from 12-year-olds and a 46-year-old. She describes them as primarily caring, nurturing people who are often so terrified about having a child that they sometimes deny their pregnancies, similar to the way a sufferer of anorexia denies being thin.

“The biggest thing is fear,” she said. “They cannot accept, for whatever reason, that they are pregnant. The baby becomes dead to them; it’s like an object.”

Legal and Moral Obstacles
One problem with the state laws, some observers say, is that they vary in setting timelines for mothers to turn over their babies. While many states only accept infants within 72 hours of birth, others accept those as old as 30 days. North Dakota accepts infants as old as 1.

Nina Williams-Mbengue, who follows safe-haven laws for NCSL, said research is needed to clarify the most effective age limit. “Critics of the laws ask, ‘Why the arbitrary age limits?’ ” Williams-Mbengue said. “Can a cop or firefighter tell the difference between a 72-hour-old baby and an 86-hour-old baby? Maybe a physician would.”

Another issue is the legal termination of parental rights. A few states took precautions to facilitate parental release with some combination of requiring a signature from the person who leaves the baby, searching a putative father registry, or running newspaper ads in an effort to find the father.

In Michigan, organizations that receive babies are required to seek the signature of the baby’s guardian. But judges in a number of cases there have ruled that the parents were not given proper notice of their legal rights, making the child’s surrender incomplete. The state plans to do more to educate the public and those in the legal system about parental rights, said Sorbet of the Family Independence Agency.

Magnusen says baby abandonment is a problem best addressed through services for the mothers, not legislation. Expectant mothers who call Project Cuddle can be referred to counseling, prenatal care centers and adoption organizations. In many cases, Magnusen and her staff are there to hold the mother’s hand through pregnancy and birth. Magnusen doesn’t find the laws particularly harmful, but refers to them as “Swiss cheese.”

“It’s Band-Aid,” she said. “It doesn’t heal the wound.”

The question remains whether these Band-Aids are enough to at least close the wound.

Contact: Project Cuddle (714) 432-9681,; National Conference of State Legislatures (202) 624-5400,