New York The so-called "safe haven" laws that have been enacted in 42 states to allow the anonymous abandonment of newborn babies may be causing serious, unanticipated problems, a leading adoption institute said today.
Most of the laws were enacted hastily over the past three years, often in response to a tragedy, and without the states sufficiently evaluating their effectiveness first, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute said in a report.
"By providing a 'no hassle' route for ending parental responsibility, safe-haven laws encourage mothers to conceal their pregnancies, give birth unsafely and leave their children anonymously, undermining established and effective child welfare and adoption policy," the report says.
The laws' goal of protecting unwanted newborns is admirable, but they don't address the factors causing babies to be abandoned, the report says.
They also send a signal that abandonment is OK, and they prevent abandoned children from ever learning their medical or genealogical histories, the report says.
Supporters of safe-haven laws, including legislators of both parties in statehouses nationwide, say the procedures are worthwhile if they save even one infant's life. Donaldson institute executive director Adam Pertman acknowledged that such arguments are difficult to counter.
"Who is going to vote against saving lives?" Pertman said. "It's a simple, feel-good solution. But if we have to have these laws, let's at least make them work -- they need to be dramatically changed and improved."
The New York-based institute, which analyzes and proposes adoption policies, based its conclusions on input gathered nationwide from social workers, family-law experts, state health officials and the National Conference of State Legislatures, as well as analysis of recent studies of women who kill their newborn infants.
The Donaldson report urges states to conduct additional research on infant abandonment and to be more aggressive in offering counseling to pregnant women, especially teens. It also called for stronger efforts to notify the abandoned babies' fathers, and give them a chance to seek custody.
Texas was the first state to enact safe haven legislation, in 1999. Since then, 41 states have followed suit, and the Wyoming legislature is currently considering a safe-haven law. States without such laws are Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Neb-raska, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia.
The laws were created to deter mothers, typically young and unmarried, from concealing their pregnancies, giving birth in private and then disposing of their newborns' bodies. Though details vary by state, the laws enable women to avoid prosecution if they leave babies at a designated safe location such as a hospital.