Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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Assessing Abandonment

A decade after the first law, are safe havens solving problems or creating them?

By Meghan Williams

It starts with horror stories. Construction workers in Rockville, Maryland, in 2003 heard cries and found a newborn tucked away in the bushes. In Tuskegee, Alabama, in 2006, a baby's body was found in a roadside trash bag. A few months ago, a 16-year-old in Washington state--reportedly impregnated by a 30-something sex offender--was charged with first-degree murder after giving birth, drowning the baby, and putting her son's body in the trash.

These events grab headlines--and attention--in the communities where they happen and beyond. There are many ways to respond. But the trend among state legislatures is passing "safe haven" or "Baby Moses" laws, which establish locations where unharmed babies can be left with anonymity and without legal consequences. Texas passed the first law in 1999 after 13 babies were reported abandoned within a 10-month period. Last year, Alaska and Nebraska became the last two states to enact laws. The laws differ across the country: which locations are designated safe havens, what ages of babies are accepted, how parents are legally protected, and whether they are asked to provide health information.

Firefighters affix a sign from Baby Moses Dallas, a volunteer group raising awareness of safe haven sites, outside a fire station in Irving, Texas.
              Photo courtesy of Patsy Summey

Many of the early laws do not provide funding for awareness campaigns, and are only mentioned in coverage of stories like those above. Most of the groundwork is done by volunteer groups, like Baby Moses Dallas, formed by members of a Christian drama troupe. "We didn't see anything being done in the area to advertise the law, there were still babies' bodies being found," explains Patsy Summey, the group's program coordinator. Baby Moses Dallas's first move was to get signs made for hospitals and fire stations to identify them as safe haven locations; more than 220 have been posted. The group has also prepared information sessions and public service announcements. "The information needs to be out there, but getting it out there is so piecemeal," says Summey. Their material has trickled across the state, and requests for more signs keep coming in. Summey recognizes that with no guarantee all unsafely abandoned babies are being found, and no reliable way to keep track of the numbers of those who are found, it's impossible to judge whether the law and their publicity efforts are effective. But her impression is that things are getting better. "I feel like the law is working, I feel like more people are knowing about it," she says. "Fewer bodies are being found."

Unintended Consequences?

For Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, impressions are not enough. He decries the lack of research on infant abandonment as a

critical failure that precludes a positive conclusion about safe haven laws' efficacy. He also believes the laws miss the target population, encourage women to anonymously abandon their babies, and create a structure outside the established adoption system.

"There's not a woman in America who is about to put her baby in a Dumpster or in a toilet who is not disturbed in some way," Pertman asserts. "Women who are in such a horrible place [psychologically] are not likely to be making plans to drop off the kid at a safe haven instead of in a Dumpster." He would like to train people to look for hidden pregnancies, and provide counseling and medical care for these women.

The new mothers who do take advantage of safe haven laws, Pertman says, are women drawn by the promise of anonymity. He suspects that safe haven babies would not otherwise have been killed, but would have been adopted through the regular process: their mothers are not avoiding committing murder, but only avoiding completing paperwork.

Nebraska State Senator Arnie Stuthman introduced the state's original safe haven bill.
                                    Photo courtesy of

Pertman says there have always been women who give birth in hospitals--where they receive medical care and give medical information--and leave the babies there. When these children move into the adoption system, they go with a background of medical records that help their future families care for them. Although in most states people bringing babies to safe haven sites are asked to answer questions or fill out forms about the child's medical history, the information is not required, and there's no chance to get more information later. "This anonymity is not good for anyone in the long run," Pertman says.

The lack of information about the baby's family also takes a number of better practice options from "normal child welfare" off the table. What if the baby's father or other kin could raise the child, Pertman wonders? Why are they ignored? Safe havens inadvertently, Pertman thinks, create a parallel adoption system. "In every other realm of practice, we have tried to have more information, more counseling, more background," he says. "If what we're trying to do is reinvent the child welfare system, let's get Evan B. Donaldson and CWLA and others at the table."

Summey contends that safe haven is not a replacement for adoption, but another choice for mothers. Baby Moses Dallas brochures appeal: "If you cannot care for your baby, please consider confidential placement through an adoption agency. If not, please take advantage of the protections of this law."

The Age Debate

Safe haven laws were made for parents who feel they cannot care for their children. Last fall, it became obvious that it's not only parents of newborns who may feel this way. Nebraska's LB 157 became effective July 18, and did not include an age limit. In 10 weeks, 36 children were brought to Nebraska hospitals; the youngest was a 1-year-old girl, and the average age was 12.8 years. In response, Governor Dave Heineman called a special session of the legislature, which convened November 14, 2008; a week later he signed LB 1, which set Nebraska's safe haven age limit at 30 days.

Pertman thinks covering children past the newborn stage is inappropriate. Because many laws were passed after specific incidents of infanticide or unsafe abandonment, the ages of the children involved affected the age limits of the laws. As an example, Ohio revised its law in December, extending the age limit from 3 days to 30 days, partially in response to a mother killing her 28-day-old daughter. A total of 13 states have 3-day (72-hour) limits, while 22 have limits of 30 days or more. Older-limited laws are "not focused any longer on the kids who are at risk," Pertman says, explaining that babies found abandoned unsafely are almost all newborns.

Arnie Stuthman, the state senator from Nebraska's 22nd district, introduced Nebraska's original bill, which set an age limit at 3 days. Like others who push for these laws, he was affected by a story of unsafe abandonment. "I have a real interest in these infants and children," he says. "We had one instance, about 40 miles north of where I live, a baby was left off in a creek bed." As his bill moved through the legislative process, an amendment changed it, taking out the age limit. There had been discussion about how to determine whether a baby was 72-hours- or 80-hours-old, and a feeling that including any limit might send a message that Nebraska legislators stopped caring about children after a certain age.

"The bill that we did pass wasn't what I really intended it to be," Stuthman admits, adding that the situation highlighted a need for greater access to services. "It was a blessing that it turned out the way it did," he says. "It has made the whole United States aware of a problem." Stuthman points out that the lesson wasn't applicable only to Nebraska; seven of the children brought to hospitals were from other states. "People will drive 12 hours to drive to get help," he says. "That state needs to look in the mirror."

Since safe haven legislation is done at the state level, there is no uniform age limit for the children who are protected by the laws. Age limits range from three days (72 hours) to one year.
                                                                                                                                      Map by Tim Murren, CWLA

Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a Matrix of Commonalities of the safe haven cases. Besides having been brought to Nebraska safe haven hospitals, there is only one single characteristic that all 36 children share: all were assessed safe from immediate harm.

Pertman views this as proof for his argument that parents who use safe haven laws would not otherwise hurt their children. "Nebraska shows us vividly that there are lots of other reasons why parents drop off their kids," he says.

While it may be impossible to discover all those reasons, examining the characteristics from HHS's matrix is illuminating. There were prior allegations of abuse or neglect for 34 of the 36 children. The same number had received mental health services, with 12 receiving treatment higher than outpatient level. All but three youth resided in or near an urban community; all but four were in single-parent households. Twenty youth had been, or were at the time they were left, wards of the state; 26 were Medicaid-eligible.

Todd Landry, the outgoing head of the Department of Children and Family Services within Nebraska's HHS, thinks that once the media started covering the reports of children dropped off at safe haven hospitals, it made the option more palatable for other families. "When these first two [children] came on, and they were obviously not newborns and infants…I think that generated a lot of media attention--locally and regionally," he says. "It did really raise the issue in [other parents'] minds of, 'Well, if that's what can happen, then maybe that's something I should consider.'"

One Family's Experience

Still, even if they were able to do it, why would parents give up their family? Toni Hoy, an Illinois mother of four, may have the answer.

Two weeks after receiving their foster care license, Hoy and her husband Jim--who already had a son and daughter by birth--were introduced to Chip, 4, and Dan, 2. They were half-brothers who had been drug- and alcohol-exposed at birth, and had suffered severe abuse and neglect. Such trauma early in life was bound to have an effect: "When you become a foster parent, you know going in that the kids are going to have problems," Hoy says. Once a month, Chip would go into a three-hour rage, screaming, kicking, and hitting, and finally crying and shaking. Dan had unpredictable, violent tantrums. But Hoy was sympathetic: her mother was mentally ill, and walked out on her five children when Hoy was 10. Hoy knew Chip and Dan needed a stable family. "We had told them from the very beginning: 'We will be your parents for as long as you need us to be,'" she says. They adopted the boys after two years.

Chip's rages got worse as he aged, and doctors' visits and tests didn't uncover any answers. After six years, seeing the regularity of the rages, doctors did more intensive neurological testing. Although he didn't fit all the criteria, Chip was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Medication stabilized Chip; his rages became milder, and disappeared with a higher dose.

Toni Hoy and her son Dan, 14. Toni and her husband Jim decided to leave Dan at a psychiatric hospital and face neglect charges in order to get him the care he needed.
                           Photo courtesy Toni Hoy

Meanwhile, Dan's tantrums, which were irregular and unpredictable, had also gotten worse. He got off the school bus one day and ripped the family's mailbox off its post. On a vacation, he punched his mother in the face. He had frequent stays at psychiatric hospitals; two refused to take him back. "Every time he went into the hospital we got another therapy," Hoy recalls, from music therapy to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Diagnoses covered a range of disorders, including bipolar, attention deficit-hyperactivity, oppositional defiant, and post-traumatic stress. Dan didn't seem to have all the symptoms of any one illness, and Hoy traces that to her and her husband's parenting. "We did spend so much time with him," she says. "Maybe he would meet all that criteria if we didn't work with him as extensively as we did."

The last three hospitalizations were after serious violent incidents: Dan pulled a knife on his siblings and threatened to kill them, he threw a book at his sister's head, and he threw his brother down the stairs and beat him. When they hospitalized Dan for the last time, Hoy and her husband knew their whole family's safety was at risk. They planned to split their family, with one parent staying with Dan at home, and the other taking the three other children to live in a condo, switching off. "Our suitcases were in the car, we were packed up," Hoy says. But they decided to speak to one more therapist to get a fresh opinion. The therapist told them they had two options: bring Dan home and get charged with child endangerment if something happened to one of their other children, or leave Dan at the hospital and be charged with child neglect.

"We drew the line at safety, and that's what it really came down to," Hoy says. They chose the latter option, hoping that if the state took charge of Dan's care, he'd get the treatment he needed. The hardest part was explaining it to Dan. "We went to the hospital, and we just sat him down, and we said 'It's going to look like we're leaving you, but we're not,'" Hoy says. "We explained everything that we had tried to do to get this care for him…. He did understand it, but it was hard, it was terrible for all of us."

The Hoys were indeed charged with neglect, which was later amended to no-fault dependency. Legally they are still Dan's parents, but the state of Illinois is his guardian. Dan is in a private psychiatric hospital; he still has violent outbursts, but the staff is equipped to handle the behavior. Hoy and her husband drive an hour each way to see their son at least once a week. "They have a whole program, he understands the program he's in and what he needs to accomplish," Hoy says. Dan has had home visits, and the hospital staff knows that his parents' involvement helps him.

Working with Families

Hoy can't imagine not being involved in her son's life. She has limited empathy for the parents who left their children at Nebraska hospitals. "I can understand why a parent would feel like they need to do that, but I think that it's wrong to cut the family off completely."

Nebraska officials echo this sentiment. "We want the parents involved, and they want to be," Senator Stuthman says. "When [the children] get their situations under control, they're still a member of the family." Landry points out that although safe haven is new, "there were, however--and remain--options that are available for families to work with their various county attorney offices, to relinquish their child voluntarily, or make their child a ward of the state."

Stuthman hopes his fellow legislators will be able to look more closely at preventive care. "This is something that I'm still trying to investigate," he says. "If [the children] were 13 years old when they dropped them off, what happened when they were 2, 3, 4, 5 years old? If we can spend a little money to prevent something, it'll save money in the long run."

The concept isn't new to Boys Town, a national service agency founded and based in Nebraska. They've designed a continuum of care that moves from home-based prevention services to residential intervention services. "The average age of admission is in the 14's, 14-and-a-half," Dan Daly, Director of Youth Care, says. "We feel if we got in there before those kids were in the second and third grades, we could accomplish a lot." Accordingly, Boys Town--which serves over 51,000 boys and girls--is increasing its in-home component. After speaking with children who still have a fierce love for their abusive parents, Executive Director Father Steven Boes's goal is to ensure families are worthy of that love. "I really want to get rid of the term 'dysfunctional family'; I want it to be gone from our lexicon," Boes says.

Boes backed these words with action as the first few safe haven youth were getting attention in Nebraska; he stood next to Governor Heineman at an early press conference. "The reason I got up with the governor at the beginning is that I thought we could head off a lot of these problems," Boes says. "I think we may have been part of diverting some folks--I know we were." Boys Town's 800-number crisis line became a resource for families considering using the law.

Focusing on preventive measures is a welcome shift, as safe haven laws are meant to help at-risk children and families, without helping others avoid becoming at-risk. How--and even whether--safe haven laws fit in among other services after their first decade is a continuing question.

Meghan Williams is a Contributing Editor to Children's Voice.

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