Critics, Supporters Debate Safe Havens Laws For Abandonmemnt of Newborns

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The Delaware County sheriff’s office continues to look for witnesses in the abandonment of a newborn found earlier this week in a cluster of bushes . If found, the parent could face prosecution. Meanwhile Ohio’s Safe Havens law provides for the relinquishing of newborns without criminal consequences. But advocates and critics differ on the law’s effectiveness.

Ohio’s Safe Havens law has been in effect since 2001. It’s similar to laws in many other states that permit a parent to relinquish an infant to certain authorities, no questions asked. Brian Harter is a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

“It allows for a child’s parent, either the birth father or the birth mother, to take the child to a medical worker either in a hospital or fire department or any other emergency service organization or they can turn this child over to a peace officer and the parent will not face any criminal action as long as the child has not been abused,” Harter says.

In the eight years since the law has been in existence, the number of babies taken to Safe Haven sites has been small. This is Doris Callaway Moore of Franklin County Children Services.

“Throughout the state there have been approximately 60 infants that have been turned over under the Safe Havens provision,” Moore says. “Locally Franklin County Children Services has had about six cases since the law was enacted in 2001; approximately two last year.”

So far this year there have been two in Cuyahoga County, one in Butler County and one in Franklin County.

When the law was first enacted, it gave the parent 72 hours from the infant’s birth to relinquish the child to authorities. The law has since been amended allowing a newborn to be taken to a Safe Haven site at any time until the child is 30 days old. Doris Moore says the infant’s well-being is at the heart of Safe Havens legislation.

“I think the intent of the law was to keep babies safe; to keep them out of dumpsters and other places where they could obviously be in harm’s way,” Moore says. “To keep [the] mother from any type of prosecution and to make it easier for her to give up a child that she could not care for, for whatever reason.”

But there are critics of the law. One of those is Adam Pertman, director of the Boston based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Pertman says Safe Havens laws appear to have increased what he calls safe abandonments, while not curtailing those that are unsafe. “The women who abandon their children unsafely, that is in garbage cans, trash bins, and toilets, are a category of human being who are typically not reached by Safe Haven laws because they’re not in good mental shape,” Pertman says. “If you’re in good mental shape you don’t put your kid in a toilet. If you are in good mental shape you’re not a person who is at risk of doing harm to your baby.”

Pertman says Safe Havens laws are a simplistic attempt to solve a complex problem. Addressing the needs of the birth mother, he says, should take priority.

“They’re the ones who need safe havens,” Pertman says. “If women are freaked out they’re the ones who need counseling. If women are not safe, they need safety. If we can reach the women – identify hidden pregnancies – by counselors at school, by parents, by pediatricians, by the people in these human beings’ lives; if we can help them, then we won’t have abandoned babies. And then we won’t have to save any of them because we will have stopped the problem at its root.” Ohio’s law allows the parent to give the child up for adoption without providing any information. Even providing basic health information is voluntary.

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