News & Features » Miscellany

Why are child-welfare advocates worried about so-called Baby Moses laws?

Desperate Deliveries


One Thursday six months ago the local news stations broadcast the image of a patterned pink-and-purple blanket. The blanket had swathed a baby boy and briefly kept a cruel death at bay. The vain hope was that someone might know something about how the infant ended up where he did. His cold body — umbilical cord still attached — was discovered on a pile of trash at a landfill in eastern Henrico County. Police believe he was two or three days old. No arrests have been made. Earlier this month, Henrico authorities and concerned citizens held a memorial service for the unidentified infant. In death, it seems, he received the compassion he never got in life. But that compassion came too late — and not just for that baby boy. In the months between the child's discovery and his funeral, at least two other infants born in Virginia, were left uncared-for by their parents and died. According to newspaper accounts, seven babies in the state have been thrown away - in garbage bins, in toilets, smothered by plastic bags - in less than two years. Only one of these was found alive. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a nationwide survey of newspaper reports and found that in 1991, 65 babies were found similarly abandoned, and eight of those were found dead. In a similar survey in 1998, 105 infants were found abandoned in public places; 33 of them were found dead. There's no question something needs to be done. But what? Lawmakers are responding with a spate of "safe-haven" legislation aimed at keeping "discarded" babies safe. But some government agencies and child-advocacy groups are concerned that a quick remedy won't solve much. In 10 months Texas discovered 13 infants who had been abandoned in public places. In 1999, the public uproar prompted state legislators there to enact the first safe-haven or "safe-surrender" law. That law, and others modeled after it, offer to protect parents from criminal prosecution if a child is safely turned over to a hospital or other approved site. But it's not that simple. In the first year the Texas law was in force, 12 infants were found abandoned — almost anywhere except an official safe-haven site. Only after a media campaign promoted public awareness did the first infant turn up the way the lawmakers intended. Still, some states followed Texas' lead. Fourteen have passed similar laws in the past 18 months. And in more than a dozen states - including Virginia - they have been proposed. Nobody wants to look as if they're against saving babies. So a flood of safe-haven or "Baby Moses" laws are sweeping through state legislatures. This year in Virginia, seven safe-haven bills were introduced. Six died in committee. What remains is HB 1891, aimed at amending current law regarding the emergency custody of abandoned children. The Virginia measure, sponsored by Del. H. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, provides that any person who delivers an unharmed child within 72 hours of its birth to an "infant receiving facility" most likely would be shielded from criminal charges of neglect or abuse. Are bills like Griffith's necessary? Maybe. The problem of abandoned children has always been a concern in the United States, and state legislatures have passed criminal and child-abuse laws to address it. But reports of so-called Dumpster babies suggest that existing laws aren't doing enough to save them. Proponents say the Baby Moses laws offer a humane alternative for scared and panicked mothers. Those mothers most likely to "dump" a baby, experts say, are the ones who are in denial of their pregnancies and who fear the consequences of having a child. Advocates of Baby Moses laws say an anonymous way to hand over the baby, without penalty, might offer hope for safe deliveries and subsequent care. And they argue that saving just one life would make the legislation a success. States that have safe-haven laws — Texas, Alabama, New York, New Jersey — claim that a dozen babies have been handed over safely. But the movement has its critics, and they are, to say the least, cautious. Some go so far as to say the effort is unnecessary. Among their worries: Babies might be abandoned with no medical histories; the abandoned babies would be accepted with no regard for pre-birth adoption choices; and the fathers' rights would be ignored. Joan Corder-Nabe, acting director for women's and infants' health with the state health department, says more than safe-haven laws are needed. Of the more than 94,000 babies born in Virginia each year, fewer than 700 die as newborns. That 8 percent rate, Corder-Nabe observes, is a sharp decline from a decade ago. And most of those infant deaths are due to birth defects, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or premature births. Corder-Nabe and others suggest that what's needed more than safe-haven laws is more attention to prenatal care and how to prevent unwanted babies from being abandoned in the first place. "It's a much more complicated issue than most people think," Corder-Nabe says. "There's lots of discussion going on. Obviously, we're very interested in this bill." By paying so much attention to the relatively small number of abandoned babies, critics of the foundling laws say, the state would be turning its back on a lack of existing resources for preventing pregnancies, or to help expecting parents. In addition, they argue, if the state presents a legal option, abandonment cases could grow. Griffith's bill names hospitals and police departments as drop-off sites, but that list could increase as other agencies request inclusion and are approved by the state Department of Health and the Department of Social Services. The bill specifies that the parents' identity is neither requested nor required. Additionally, the bill says the state's departments of health and social services must launch a media campaign to promote how and where safe placement alternatives work. If the legislation is approved, it will mean more responsibility for those state agencies. Still, Dr. E. Anne Peterson, the state's health commissioner, says she doesn't expect much in her department will change. "National experience tells us the impact will be small," Peterson says. And though no infant has ever been left at the state health department, Petersen says the agency would handle such cases during normal business hours if the law passes. What's more, she says, local health departments serve as a "good link" to get the word out. Currently, states are required to provide the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with information on the number of children of all ages who must be placed in foster care — 511 last year in Virginia. But there are no national or state statistics on the number of infants discarded in public places, says Suzanne Keller, coordinator of the Child Fatality Review Team with the state Medical Examiner's Office. The 16-member fatality-review team of doctors, child-care advocates and officials is appointed by the governor to review child deaths. "We look at these cases and consider what could have been done to intervene," Keller says. And while the team hasn't made any recommendations about the safe-haven laws, it intends to watch them. "The current situation suggests there's a need for additional early-intervention programs like Resource Mothers and Healthy Families that help teen-age mothers and their families," she says. As lawmakers, child advocacy groups and social service agencies throughout the country seek solutions to end what they see as a preventable death toll, the problem of what efforts should be taken to best deter "discarded infants" or "public abandonment" grows heated, at least in some states. Advocacy groups that express serious reservations in other states or at the national level are, at least for now, toning it down in Virginia. Some don't know whether to jump on the bandwagon or hold back. If the laws pass, most groups want to be included in the implementation process. The Southern Poverty Law Center is "not taking a position on the bill at this time," says Nechama Masliansky, an attorney for the nonprofit legal advocacy group. "We have questions about who is leaving children and we'd be interested in helping with an interdisciplinary study," Masliansky adds. For now, groups stop just short of saying Griffith's bill, if passed, would prompt more questions than answers. It's simply too early to tell what the impact child abandonment laws will have. This week it will be known whether Virginia will pass the law and join the trend. They won't likely address the bigger picture of why some parents become so desperate. But if babies turn up safe, who will argue with that? "There's good intent here," says Johanna Schuchert, director of Prevent Child Abuse Virginia, a child advocacy group that would like to see the legislation tabled for a year for further review. Laws evolve as a reaction to something, she says. "Sometimes," she adds, "it takes trying a law for a few years to make the leap of

Add a comment