Post-Ro, Conservatives promote method of abandoning newborns anonymously

A children’s safe haven at a fire station in Carmel, India, looked like a library drop of books. It was available for three years for anyone wanting to deliver an unknown child.

However, no one used it at all until early April. When the alarm went off, firefighter Victor Andres opened the box and found, in disbelief, a newborn boy wrapped in towels.

This discovery made the local television news, which praised the bravery of the mother, calling it a “time to party.” Later that month, Mr. Andres pulled another newborn, a girl, out of the box. In May, a third child appeared. By summer, three more children were left at Baby Fund locations across the state.

Baby boxes are part of the Safe Haven movement, which has long been closely associated with anti-abortion activism. Safe havens offer desperate mothers a way to anonymously hand over their newborns for adoption, advocates say, avoiding harming, abandoning or even killing them. Sanctuaries can be boxes that allow parents to avoid talking to anyone or even seeing them when their children are handed over. Traditionally, sanctuaries are locations such as hospitals and fire stations, where staff are trained to accept a face-to-face delivery from a parent in crisis.

All 50 states have safe harbor laws designed to protect surrendering mothers from criminal charges. The first law, known as the “Baby Moses” law, was passed in Texas in 1999, after a number of women left their children in litter boxes or trash containers. But what started as a way to prevent extreme cases of child abuse has become a broader phenomenon, particularly supported among the religious right, which is aggressively promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion.

Over the past five years, more than a dozen states have passed laws allowing baby trusts or expanding safe haven options in other ways. And reproductive health and childcare experts say safe haven surrender is likely to become more common after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

During the oral arguments in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Judge Amy Connie Barrett, suggested that safe harbor laws provide an alternative to abortion by allowing women to avoid the “burdens of parenting.” In the court’s decision, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. views safe harbor laws as a “recent development” that, in the majority view, avoided the need for abortion rights.

But for many experts in adoption and women’s health, safe havens aren’t a panacea.

For them, safe surrender is a sign of a woman’s fall through the cracks of established systems. They may have hid their pregnancy and gave birth without prenatal care, or they may suffer from domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness, or mental illness.

Adoptions themselves can also be a problem, as women are likely to be unaware that they are ending parental rights, and children are left with little information about their origins.

If a parent is using a safe haven, “a crisis has occurred and the system has already failed in some way,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council on Adoption.

Safe haven surrenders are still rare. The National Safe Harbor Alliance estimates that 115 legal surrenders occurred in 2021. In recent years, there have been more than 100,000 domestic adoptions annually, and more than 600,000 abortions. Studies show that the vast majority of women who deny abortion are not interested in adoption and continue to raise their children.

But the Safe Haven movement is becoming more prominent, in part due to a push from charismatic activist rooted in anti-abortion activism, Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

With Mrs. Kelsey and her allies lobbied across the country, states like Indiana, Iowa and Virginia have sought to make safe haven surrender easier, faster and more anonymity — allowing older children to be disembarked, or allowing conceding parents to leave without speaking to another adult or sharing any Medical history.

Some who work with Safe Haven children are concerned about baby boxes, in particular. There are now more than 100 across the country.

“Is this infant delivered without coercion?” asked Micah Orlis, director of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is this parent in a bad situation and could use some time and discussion in a warm delivery experience to make their decision?”

Ms. Kelsey, a doctor and former firefighter, adopts and says she was abandoned at birth by her teenage mother who was raped.

I was first introduced to a “safe” child – a concept dating back to medieval Europe – on a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was on a pro-abstinence lecture tour.

She returned home to Indiana to found a nonprofit, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, and installed her first baby box in 2016.

To use one of Mrs. Kelsey’s chests, a parent opens a metal drawer to reveal a temperature-controlled hospital bed. Once the child enters and closes the tray, it locks automatically; The parent cannot reopen it. An alarm is triggered and facility staff can access the bed. The box also sends out a 911 call. Ms. Kelsey said 21 children have been left in the boxes since 2017, and the average time a child spends inside the box is less than two minutes.

It has raised funds to put up dozens of billboards advertising the safe haven option. The ads feature a picture of a handsome firefighter cuddling a newborn, and the emergency hotline number for the Safe Haven Baby Box.

Ms Kelsey said she has been in touch with lawmakers across the country who want to bring the boxes to their districts, and predicted that in five years, her funds would be in all 50 states.

“We can all agree that the baby should be put in my bin and not in a litter box to die,” she said.

Due to anonymity, there is limited information about parents using safe shelters. But Dr. Orlis, of the Safe Haven Clinic in Los Angeles, does psychological and developmental evaluations of about 15 of these children annually, often following them through their toddler years. His research found that more than half of babies had health or developmental problems, often resulting from inadequate prenatal care. In California, unlike in Indiana, safe haven surrender must be done face to face, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious problems such as substance abuse.

Still, many children do well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing manager in southern Indiana, adopted 3-year-old daughter Nola, after the girl was driven to a safe haven just hours after she was born. Ms Higgs said the biological mother called the Children’s Safe Haven hotline after seeing one of the group’s billboards.

“From day one, she has been healthy, happy, prosperous and has gone through all stages of development,” Ms. Higgs said of Nola. “It’s perfect in our eyes.”

For some women who seek help, the first point of contact is the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency hotline.

This hotline, and another line maintained by the National Safe Harbor Alliance, tell callers where and how they can legally deliver children, along with information about the traditional adoption process.

Safe haven groups say they tell callers that anonymous surrender is a last resort, and provide information on how to keep their children, including ways to get diapers, rent money and temporary childcare.

“When women are given choices, they choose what’s best for them,” said Ms. Kelsey. “And if that means that in a moment of crisis she chooses a children’s fund, we all have to support her in her decision.”

But the Ms. Kelsey hotline does not talk about legal time limits for child reunification unless callers request it, she said.

In Indiana, which contains the majority of baby trusts, state law does not set a timeline for ending parental rights after safe haven surrender, or for adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, an attorney general in Owen County, Indiana, who has experience with the state’s child abandonment laws, biological families are free to apply until the court terminates parental rights, which can occur 45 to 60 days after anonymity. . Give up.

Because these abandonments are anonymous, they usually lead to closed adoptions. Birth parents are unable to choose a parent, and adoptees are left with little or no information about their family of origin or medical history.

Mr Hanlon, of the National Council on Adoption, pointed to research showing that in the long run, born parents feel more satisfied with abandoning their children if biological and adoptive families maintain a relationship.

And in safe harbor situations, if the mother changes her mind, she must prove to the state that she is fit.

According to Ms. Kelsey, since she began her operation, two women who said they had placed their children in trusts have tried to regain custody of their children. These cases can take months or even years to resolve.

Laurie Bruce, a medical ethicist at Yale University, said birth mothers are also not immune from legal risks, and may not be able to deal with the technical aspects of each state’s safe harbor law.

While many countries protect Muslim mothers from criminal prosecution if the children are healthy and unharmed, mothers who are experiencing an acute crisis — such as dealing with addiction or domestic violence, for example — may not have protection if their newborns are affected birth somehow.

Ms Bruce said the notion that a postpartum traumatized mother could “search the laws right on Google is a slim one”.

With Roe gone, she added, “we know we’ll see more abandoned children.” “My concern is that this means that more prosecutors will be able to prosecute women for unsafely giving up their children – or not following the letter of the law.”

On Friday, the governor of Indiana signed a law banning most abortions, with few exceptions.

The safe haven movement continues apace.

Mrs. Higgs, the adoptive mother, has remained in touch with Monica Kelsey of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I found out about Roe v. Wade, I texted Monica and said, ‘Are you ready to get busier? “

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