Two sides to safe-haven debate

When a Lincoln woman gave birth at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center, then left the baby at the hospital, she was doing exactly what most safe haven laws in other states allow. In every state except Nebraska and Alaska,
2007-07-21T19:00:00Z Two sides to safe-haven debateNANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
July 21, 2007 7:00 pm  • 

When a Lincoln woman gave birth at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center, then left the baby at the hospital, she was doing exactly what most safe haven laws in other states allow — leaving her infant daughter  in a safe place.

In every state except Nebraska and Alaska, a mother can leave a newborn at a designated safe haven, generally a hospital, police station or fire station.

Safe haven laws are intended to protect children by providing places at which an unwanted child can be dropped off, said  Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha, one of two senators who introduced safe haven bills in the Nebraska Legislature in January.

“It’s that simple,” Pahls said. 

Most children dropped off at safe haven sites survive and are adopted, he said, while many who are dropped off in unsafe places die.

So why hasn’t Nebraska passed a safe haven law?

Some people think they’re ineffective.

“There is kind of a gut level reaction to safe haven bills,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of  the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an independent, nonpartisan research-based agency. “How can you vote against helping abandoned babies?”

But he doesn’t believe the laws have slowed the rate of unsafe abandonment.  

 “We don’t appear to be saving babies,” Pertman said, noting that women continue to leave newborns in trash bins, parking lots and bathrooms in states that have safe haven laws.

“At a minimum the number of kids left in horrible places is not diminishing,” he says.

And the laws have other consequences, according “Unintended Consequences,” a 2003 report from the institute. Abandoned babies do not have identities. They don’t have medical or biological histories.  Birth mothers don’t get counseling to help them deal with shame and grief, and birth fathers lose all rights.

Lobbyists representing groups ranging from the Nebraska state Medical Association and Hospital Association to adoption agencies and attorneys echoed these reasons in public hearings and privately when Nebraska lawmakers were considering a safe haven bill.

And Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, using similar arguments to those found in the “Unintended Consequences” report, has been a successful roadblock.

Rather than saving babies, he said, the law would encourage more young women to abandon their babies.

Abandoning babies would be made easy and “carry the imprimatur of the state,” Chambers said. 

“Hard cases make bad law,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

Texas passed the first safe haven law in 1999 after 13 newborns were abandoned in Houston. Other states jumped on board to adopt a law that seemed to make sense.

The National Safe Haven Alliance reported in 2006  that at least 806 infants had been legally surrendered since Texas passed that first law.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, opponents contend. 

In fact, they are convinced the laws do not make babies safer. 

“It appears that the rate of unsafe abandonments has not been diminished by these laws,” said Pertman, also the author of “Adoption Nation.”

The number of kids left in safe havens is used as evidence to show the laws work, he said. “That presumes that every child was going to be killed or put in a toilet.”

“I think that is outrageous and not supported by the evidence. There is no evidence these kids were at risk.”

Most of these mothers would have found another safe way to deal with their babies, Pertman said.

And unsafe abandonments continue in states with safe haven laws.

Two young mothers in Broward County, Fla., have been accused of killing their newborn girls in the past two months. One was left in a black trash bag outside a home.  The other was at the bottom of a trash chute.

Since 2000, when the Florida law was passed, 75 babies have been left anonymously at fire stations or hospitals statewide while 35 babies were found  in bags, trash chutes or canals, according to a story in the Miami Herald. About one-third of the babies abandoned illegally were dead.

“Women who are so distressed, in denial, so psychotic that they would put a kid in a trash bin are not reading billboards and asking their boyfriend for a ride to the police station,” Pertman said

He acknowledges he is relying on anecdotal  evidence for his conclusion that unsafe abandonment has not diminished in states with safe haven laws.

But he says his organization will soon update its 2003 report with numbers from states that now keep track of both legal and illegal abandonments. 

Finding good data is a problem and hinders the ability to determine the effectiveness of safe haven laws, said Nina Mbengue, with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Historically, states have not tracked unsafe abandonments. Nebraska, for example,  has no central database, only newspaper stories indicating that at least four babies have been abandoned since 2000, including the infant left at St. Elizabeth on July 13.

Even some states with Safe Haven Laws don’t record unsafe abandonments. 

Iowa records the number of babies left at safe haven sites — eight since the law became effective in the summer of 2001. But it doesn’t record illegal abandonments. Newspapers have reported at least four, said Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Just two of the legal abandonments were completely anonymous. A couple of children were born in hospitals, then legally abandoned, Munns said.

The reason for Iowa’s law was to highlight a mother’s options so she might take a safe route in a moment of panic, he said. 

But women who stuff their baby into a trash bag aren’t making decisions, says Pertman. They’re reacting.

Most babies abandoned and left to die still have their umbilical cord.  Their mothers are often women who did not know they were pregnant and did not give birth in hospitals.

Putting a baby in a toilet is a reaction of the moment, Pertman said, and safe haven laws don’t address the needs of these women,

Because Nebraska has no safe haven law, the Lincoln woman who left her baby at the hospital has been ticketed for misdemeanor child abandonment.

Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said his office likely will file the charge this week. It carries a penalty of up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison, but Lacey said his office likely will recommend probation.

“This is not something you can just ignore,” he said Friday. “The law is there. It says you will not abandon a child. …

“I don't think you can bring someone in this world … and then just run off.”

If the mother had left the baby in an unsafe place and the child died, he said, she would be “facing charges way more serious than this.”

Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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