It is illegal for a parent to neglect or abandon his or her child. Part of a parent's responsibility is to meet a child's basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, and access to medical care. A parent who abandons a child can be charged with child neglect, abandonment, or child abuse.
However, under "safe haven" laws in nearly all states it is perfectly acceptable under certain circumstances to anonymously leave your child with a stranger at a police station or hospital if you decide you don't want to take care of him or her anymore.
Safe haven laws, or "Baby Moses" laws, started in Texas in 1999 and extend to 47 States and Puerto Rico.
The laws were enacted in response to a series of news reports about newborns killed or thrown away by their mothers. The idea for safe haven laws came not from a social worker, sociologist, or psychologist, but instead from a newspaper reporter covering a story about abandoned children. The idea was that perhaps young mothers would stop drowning their newborns in toilets or leaving them to die in dumpsters if they could just leave them somewhere safe and walk away without fear of arrest or prosecution.
Children do need to be protected, especially shortly after birth; they are at a much higher risk of being killed (usually by a parent) during their first four months of life than at any other time. A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found abuse and neglect in about 1 in 50 American infants, or about 90,000 babies. So there is a problem, but are safe haven laws the solution?
Bad logic, bad laws
The child abandonment laws, though well-intentioned, have serious flaws.
For one thing, it often leaves the choice to abandon the child up to one parent, ignoring the rights of the other. Since, according to the law, the parent who leaves the child cannot be identified, there's no way to know if someone else in the family can or would take care of the child. Second, it sends a government-sponsored message that if you find being a parent difficult, or your child is a problem, the solution is to just leave him or her at a hospital and walk away. It's a strange law for a country that touts the importance of families. Third, safe haven laws do not address the underlying causes of the abuse and neglect.
Lawmakers and politicians crafting safe haven laws have also made a logical mistake, basing the laws on the faulty premise that an unwanted child can either be left to die in a pile of garbage or left in the safety of a police station or hospital. Instead, a distressed mother has other options without resorting to legalized child abandonment.
The mother can seek social services, leave the child with family members, or put the child up for adoption. The law assumes that mothers would "safely" abandon (instead of killing or fatally neglecting) their babies more often if they were not afraid of being arrested. Yet there's no evidence that neglect and abandonment laws are a deterrent to desperate parents, and in fact there are many places that mothers can — and do — abandon children illegally, such as supermarkets, shopping malls, and day care centers.
Women have been in charge of their reproductive rights for decades; between effective and widely available contraception, abortion, and adoption, women have many opportunities to avoid parenthood. In today's world, no woman is forced to become a mother against her will.
Even those who proposed the safe haven laws admit they are flawed. Nebraska governor Dave Heineman stated recently that the law has resulted in "serious, unintended consequences" — notably his state becoming a dumping ground for disposable children. In Nebraska, nearly twenty children between the ages of 22 months and 17 years have been abandoned since the law went into effect in July, including several who were brought in from other states.
Though the laws were intended to help save endangered children, that has not happened. Most of the parents did not abandon their children because their only other option was to kill or neglect their child; instead, they walked away because raising them was too much hassle.
Sen. Arnie Stuthman, who introduced the safe haven bill, said that parents "are leaving [their children] off just because they can't control them... it's an easy way out for the caretaker." Todd Landry of Nebraska's Children and Family Services agreed, saying that so far none of the children dropped off have been in danger.
This week Nebraskan lawmakers declared that they would rewrite the law to apply only to infants up to three days old. Yet picking an arbitrary cutoff age—whether three days, three weeks, or three months—doesn't address the laws' serious, inherent problems. The effects of decriminalizing child abandonment are clear: parents leaving their children, babies and teenagers to be raised by the government in foster homes because they don't feel like taking care of them.
Perhaps it's not the children but instead the safe haven laws that should be abandoned.
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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website.