With abortion now restricted or even penalized in nearly half of U.S. states, there’s likely to be an increase in the number of mothers using safe haven laws to anonymously relinquish their newborn babies.
Such laws, first enacted in Texas in 1999 to prevent infant abandonment and infanticide, have since been adopted by all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Although no systematic data are collected, by one estimate more than 4,000 babies have been left at safe haven sites.
As the founder of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, I’ve witnessed many families adopting infants who were relinquished through California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law. Like any new parents, they are overjoyed with the infant in their care. But they also understand that the parenting challenges that lie ahead for them are complicated….
Consider a boy I’ll call Joseph, who was relinquished at a hospital following his birth and placed in a foster home with prospective adoptive parents. When I first met him at six weeks old, he was healthy, meeting his early milestones, and was developing a strong early bond with his foster parents. Despite this great start to his life, we knew from the information his birth mother revealed that he’d experienced some significant prenatal risk factors, including a lack of prenatal care and his mother’s homelessness and mental health struggles. While Joseph’s foster parents were excited at the prospect of adopting him, they remained concerned about the long-term impact of the prenatal neglect he had experienced.
Preliminary research shows a few interesting findings. First, California’s safe haven law is working as intended to decrease infant abandonment and death. In the first year after the law was passed in 2001, 20 babies were abandoned in the state, 13 of whom were dead when they were discovered. Fast forward to the most recent years for which statewide data exist (2016 to 2019) and there’s a very different story. Over those four years, only four babies were abandoned and all were found alive.
The other compelling finding is that safe haven babies are at increased risk for medical issues relative to the general population. In research we conducted, more than half of the safely surrendered babies in Los Angeles County were diagnosed with medical issues in their first year of their life.
In addition, the majority of safe haven infants were relinquished in communities with low median incomes, indicating that this is where their mothers lived. This suggests that the use of safe haven laws is often a sad consequence of economic disparities and lack of community resources.
While this research is drawn only from the Los Angeles area, it highlights concerns that will suddenly become much more relevant in other communities across the country.
The above comes from a July 20 posting on StatNews.