Clara Lewis and
The NBC series “Chicago Fire” is under fire from safe haven law advocates worried that viewers might be misled by a recent episode involving a baby box. The problem, as they see it, is that while some states allow the boxes, Illinois doesn’t.
But the problem with safe haven laws is far more serious. As experts on infanticide, we’ve watched every state enact some version of a “safe haven” as a way to save newborns who might otherwise be abandoned in dumpsters. Our research made us skeptical that the laws were reaching their target. Then that target expanded. In striking down Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court opined that by permitting anonymous drop-offs, safe havens sufficiently address the problem of unwanted children.
Knowing that abortion bans will lead to more infant abandonment, we set out to understand how safe havens work. We found chaos. Nobody is collecting the information needed to safeguard infants and their parents, let alone confront the societal forces leading people to use these havens in the first place.
Safe haven surrenders happen in the shadows. In part, this is because state laws lack uniformity. Some require infants be surrendered within 72 hours of birth; others allow up to 90 days. Some send infants into foster care; others fast-track adoptions. Some restrict safe havens to settings with health care providers; others allow drop-offs at crisis pregnancy centers or in high-tech “baby boxes.”
There is no standardized, mandatory training for those working in designated safe havens, who might be firefighters, pastors or volunteers. Many locations do not even realize they are legally designated as safe havens and lack any plan should an infant arrive.
The death last year of a newborn abandoned in a duffel bag outside a Chicago fire station was a tragedy but not a surprise, given the realities informing safe haven surrenders.
Heather Burner, who runs the National Safe Haven Alliance hotline, and her team field calls from parents contemplating surrendering their newborns. Burner’s four-person staff works long hours, helping victims of trafficking return home and identifying local drug treatment programs and affordable mental health care. Some callers are in violent relationships or are struggling to find housing or kick drugs. Some can’t fathom paying for day care while struggling to support the families they already have. Some are teenagers concealing pregnancies, fearful of family rejection. All are in crisis.
One of Burner’s biggest challenges is helping callers navigate the country’s wildly inconsistent laws. Rather than safeguarding this vulnerable population, safe haven policies lack even minimal oversight to ensure surrenders are fully voluntary. There is no requirement that parents be informed of the public and private support that might permit them to make a different choice. Nor are they warned that, in an era of widespread genetic testing, the signal promise of “anonymity” is a farce. Surrendered children may eventually uncover their parents’ identities, but the police might beat them to it.
Safe haven laws provide only qualified immunity, shielding parents from prosecution for the crime of infant abandonment. No immunity exists if the child shows signs of abuse: A woman who struggles with addiction might make the heartbreaking choice to surrender her newborn, only to be charged for using drugs during pregnancy.
Should parents regret their decision, few safe haven laws support a path to reunification. Unlike those placing children for adoption, whose decisions aren’t finalized for days or even weeks, safe haven parents typically must petition to reclaim custody. Instead of working to promote the alternative of open adoption, which is better for babies and birthparents alike, many states make zero-contact handoff the norm.
Safe havens aren’t even safeguarding babies. There are no data-driven best practices because nobody is tracking outcomes. The only evidence-based response comes from Dr. Micah Orliss, who leads the Safe Surrender program at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, which offers a multidisciplinary approach for managing the constellation of special needs and developmental challenges his team has identified in surrendered infants. His clinic — unique in the country — provides ongoing care, at no expense to adoptive parents. Surely a just society should do more than set out heated drop boxes where untrained personnel collect the babies of our most vulnerable parents. But if we are settling for safe abandonment, let’s at least fix the system.
The best way forward is to bring safe havens out of the shadows. Protecting newborns requires tying safe havens to trained medical providers and using adoption over foster care. Beyond this, we need evidence-based protocols, informed by a national system for tracking safe surrenders.
We must also protect those who surrender newborns, ensuring they are not given false promises. Rather than criminalizing infant abandonment, we must work to offset it by fighting root causes such as the opioid epidemic, the mental health crisis and a lack of affordable housing.
Without these reforms, our safe havens operate not as a system for protecting newborns but rather as a tool for separating vulnerable parents from their children.