In the United States, every state now has legislation establishing so-called “safe havens” where parents can anonymously and legally abandon infants or even older children—without question or punishment. While NACAC strongly supports policies and practices that protect the safety and health of all children and youth, we do not believe that safe haven legislation is an effective way to meet this goal.
Studies that track abandonment show that the laws have not succeeded in eliminating unsafe, illegal abandonment. Other research suggests that the laws may encourage women to abandon infants who would otherwise have been raised by relatives or placed for adoption through established means. In addition, safe haven legislation deprives one of the biological parents (often the father) of their parenting rights and precludes the abandoned infant from ever knowing their genealogical or medical histories.
NACAC believes that children have a right to information about their identity (their birth mother, birth father, or other family members; their heritage; their culture; etc.) and that they—and their adoptive families—will benefit from having this information. Birth mothers and birth fathers also have the right to supportive services, counseling, and information that will enable them to make the best possible decision for themselves and their children. In addition, American Indian children have the right to the protections of the Indian Child Welfare Act and to the rights and resources accorded to members of federally recognized tribes. We believe that a more effective, humane, moral approach to protecting children at risk of abandonment would be the funding of programs for at-risk mothers and fathers.
Policy and Practice Recommendations
NACAC strongly encourages states, provinces, tribes, and territories to rescind existing safe haven legislation. Where such laws exist, however, NACAC encourages the following policies and practices. Safe haven laws should:
- Build in safeguards (such as having police investigate reports of missing children) to ensure that the child has not been abducted and that the person turning in the child is the child’s legal parent.
- Require the child welfare agency to check the putative father registry before filing a termination of parental rights petition, and ensure a process for the non-relinquishing parent to assert his or her rights.
- Encourage and allow the parent to volunteer family and medical background information (including identifying information at the parent’s option) at the time of relinquishment or a later date, and ensure that this information is available to the child later.
- Encourage and allow parents to volunteer tribal membership information.
- Provide parents with a reasonable amount of time (such as 30 days) and a process by which either parent can reclaim the child without any court action related to the act of leaving the infant at the safe haven, unless the parent is found to be unfit for other reasons. Parents should be informed verbally and in writing of the process and time limit for reclaiming the child.
- Be limited to infants 72 hours old or younger (those whom these laws were originally intended to serve and whom research has shown might possibly be helped by such laws).
- Provide free counseling and other supportive services to either parent.
- Limit safe havens to medical or child welfare facilities and require the child to be left with an individual who has expertise and experience to properly care for the child and to work with the parent(s).
- Include provisions to invest in prenatal and other family support for young, single, or at-risk parents or prospective parents.
- Create and fund a community awareness campaign about the option of the safe haven, as well as information about adoption, kinship care, and family support; include a child welfare helpline in the campaign.
- Create and fund programs to educate teachers, parents, doctors, counselors, and others about how to identify concealed pregnancies and support affected women.
Require states, provinces, territories, and tribes to collect data on the use of safe havens and fund research on whether safe haven laws have the desired impact.