Citing a report released in March, an adoption-advocacy group recently raised serious questions about the effectiveness of programs set up to protect abandoned babies.
But supporters of the programs – created under the so-called “safe-haven” laws enacted by many states – say they offer a viable alternative to women tempted to abandon their newborn babies.
Some of the safe-haven programs are operated by Catholic organizations or individuals who believe they are effective solutions to the problem of newborns being abandoned by troubled young mothers.
The laws are intended to save babies whose lives are endangered when they are deserted in places like dumpsters and public restrooms. Under the laws, a mother who can't take care of her baby for whatever reason can bring the child within a designated time of the baby's birth to an approved site. These can include hospitals, churches, fire stations and other facilities. No questions are asked as long as the baby has not been harmed, and the mother will not be prosecuted for abandonment.
Usually the mother or father can reclaim the child within a certain period of time, after social workers have ensured that either parent is capable of caring for the child. The baby can be released for adoption within six months, after the mother has given up her parental rights.
The study criticizing the programs, conducted by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an independent think tank studying adoption-related issues, did not mix words. “[S]afe-haven laws not only do not solve the problem of unsafe infant abandonment but actually may encourage women to conceal pregnancies and then abandon infants who otherwise would have been placed for adoption through established legal procedures or been raised by relatives,” its authors write. “Moreover, safe-haven laws are having other serious negative consequences and undermine established child-welfare and protection practices.”
The laws are having negative consequences, the report says, such as creating the opportunity for upset family members and others to abandon babies without the mother's consent, depriving biological fathers of their legal right to care for their children and sending a signal to people that they do not necessarily have to assume responsibility for their actions. The institute claims the laws undermine established child-welfare and protection practices and says there is no evidence that the laws are working.
Save Rates to Reckon With
Meanwhile, supporters and practitioners of safe-haven programs take issue with many of the findings and say the programs are helping to save the lives of babies.
The institute “did not use our statistics or interview us, and we have one of the highest save rates in the country,” says Tim Jaccard, president of the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, a Mineola, N.Y., organization that has been operating a safe-haven program for several years. Jaccard says his group last year rescued 10 babies and helped 129 mothers decide to keep their babies. Many others put their babies up for adoption.
The foundation is a nonprofit organization that gets support from local Catholic and other religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and Holy Name Society. Jaccard, a member of St. William the Abbott parish in Seaford, N.Y., which also provides a safe haven for babies, has been a leading proponent of safe-haven laws.
In addition to rescuing abandoned babies, the foundation refers pregnant women and new mothers to qualified counseling services. Jaccard says there have been several cases where women who had been considering abortion opted instead to have their babies and bring them to his group.
Catholic Family Services in Sioux Falls, S.D., also provides a safe haven for babies and offers counseling services for pregnant women. The service is one of five havens offered within the Diocese of Sioux Falls. Sister Mary Carole Curran, executive director of the service, says it has yet to receive an abandoned baby but has had people come in to place babies for adoption.
Curran says she is aware of the criticism that safe-haven laws encourage young parents to not be responsible for their babies. But the safe havens promote more responsible behavior than abandoning babies in places that are not safe, she says.
“I think [the program] is wonderful,” says Curran. “We're pro-life and we want these children to live.” She says Catholic Family Services offers financial assistance to parents in the diocese who want to keep their babies but don't have the financial resources or have exhausted available funds from social agencies.
Also waiting for its first baby is St. Frances De Chantal Church in Wantagh, N.Y., which began operating a safe haven in 2002. “The priests and sisters understand the program and are prepared if a baby is brought in,” says Ele Ruth Fritsch, director of parish social ministry at the parish. Fritsch says the church has donated food, clothing and diapers to the AMT Children of Hope Foundation.
Fritsch agrees that havens reflect the pro-life teachings of the Catholic Church and help young mothers by offering counseling and other services. “We need to make it easier for moms who come into these situations and not point fingers at them,” she says.
Juli Novak, director of women's services at Holy Family Memorial Medical Center in Manitowoc, Wis., says the hospital began serving as a safe haven since Wisconsin enacted a law in 2001. A baby left at the hospital is assessed in the emergency room and admitted to a newborn nursery. Physicians care for the baby, and the hospital notifies child protective services, which takes custody of the baby.
Novak says no one who works for the program at the hospital – founded by Franciscan sisters and serving a small community – initially expected a baby to be dropped off. In March 2002 a staff member went outside for a break and found a duffle bag on a bench that held an abandoned baby girl. The baby, who was between eight and 10 hours old, was treated, spent three days in the nursery then was brought to child services to be placed for adoption.
“She now has a home and her [adoptive] parents are excited,” Novak says. “They know a miracle brought her to the hospital.” Novak says seven babies have been left at havens in the state since the law went into effect. Because of the law, she says, “these babies are alive and have an opportunity for life.”
The Least of These
In Minneapolis, an organization called A Safe Place for Newborns is working to educate people in Minnesota and other states about safe haven programs. The group is supported by Catholics and began operations in the basement of the Cathedral of St. Paul, says Laure Crupp, executive director. At least five babies have been left at havens in Minnesota since its law was passed in 2000.
“We've helped a lot of women through our Web page and crisis line,” says Crupp. “One girl contacted us saying she was about to give birth and hadn't told anyone. We exchanged e-mails and persuaded her to get to a doctor.” The woman gave birth within two weeks of contacting the group.
Crupp says her Catholic faith drives her to help others in need.
She relates the story of St. Lawrence, her patron saint, who when ordered by officials in Rome to hand over the treasures of the church to the emperor, assembled the poor, crippled, widows and orphans and presented them to the officials, calling them the treasures of the Church.
“This is what my faith taught me; to stand up for the least of these,” Crupp says. “These souls are crying out. If we hear that cry we must answer it.”
Bob Violino writes from Massapequa Park, New York.