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The Safe Haven Baby Playpen at a fire station in Carmel, Ind., looked like a library bookstore. It had been available for three years to anyone who wanted to give up a baby anonymously.
However, no one had ever used it until early April. When the alarm went off, Victor Andres, a firefighter, opened the box and, to his disbelief, found a newborn boy wrapped in towels.
The discovery made local TV news, praising the mother’s bravery and calling it “a time for celebration.” Later that month, Mr. Andres removed another newborn baby, a girl, from the box. A third baby appeared in May. By the summer, three more babies were left at playpen locations across the state.
The baby boxes are part of the safe haven movement, which has long been closely linked to anti-abortion activism. Safe havens offer desperate mothers a way to anonymously give their newborns up for adoption, and, advocates say, prevent them from hurting, abandoning, or even killing. The refuges can be boxes, allowing parents to avoid talking to anyone or even being seen when they drop off their babies. Traditionally, the refuges are locations such as hospitals and fire stations, where employees are trained to accept a personal transfer from a parent in crisis.
All 50 states have safe harbor laws designed to protect surrendering mothers from criminal charges. The first, known as the “Baby Moses” law, was passed in Texas in 1999, after a number of women left babies in trash cans or dumpsters. But what started as a way to prevent the most extreme cases of child abuse has become a broader phenomenon, supported mainly by the religious right, which strongly promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion.
In the past five years, more than 12 states have passed laws permitting playpens or otherwise expanding safe havens. Reproductive health and child welfare experts say safe haven surrenders are likely to become more common after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
During pleadings in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, Judge Amy Comey Barrett suggested that safe haven laws offered an alternative to abortion by allowing women to avoid “the burdens of parenthood.” In the court ruling, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. safe-haven laws as a “modern development” that, in the majority view, obviated the need for abortion rights.
But for many adoption and women’s health experts, safe havens are hardly a panacea.
For them, a surrender of a safe harbor is a sign that a woman has fallen through the cracks of existing systems. They may have concealed their pregnancy and given birth without prenatal care, or they may be suffering from domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness or mental illness.
The adoptions themselves can also be problematic, with women may be unaware that they are ending parental rights, leaving children with little information about their parentage.
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If a parent uses a safe haven, “there has been a crisis and the system has somehow already failed,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption.
Stimulating the movement
Safe haven surrenders are still rare. The National Safe Haven Alliance estimates 115 legal surrenders will have taken place in 2021. In recent years, there have been more than 100,000 domestic adoptions and more than 600,000 abortions annually. Show studies that the vast majority of women who refuse an abortion are not interested in adoption and continue to raise their children.
But the safe haven movement has become much more prominent, in part due to the impetus of a charismatic activist with roots in anti-abortion activism, Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
While Mrs. Lobbying Kelsey and allies across the country, states like Indiana, Iowa, and Virginia have sought to make safe-haven surrenders easier, faster, and more anonymous — allowing older babies to be dropped off, or renounced parents to leave the crime scene without a problem. speaking to another adult or sharing a medical history.
Some who work with safe children are especially concerned about the playpens. There are now over 100 across the country.
“Is this child being forced to surrender?” asked Micah Orliss, director of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is this a parent who is in a bad position and could benefit from some time and discussion in a warm transference experience to make their decision?”
Ms. Kelsey is a former doctor and firefighter, and an adoptee who says she was abandoned at birth by her teenage mother, who was raped.
She first encountered a baby ‘safe’ – a concept that dates back to medieval Europe – during a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was at a pro-abstinence speech.
She returned to Indiana to start a non-profit organization, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, and installed her first baby box in 2016.
To use one of Mrs. Kelsey’s boxes, a parent pulls open a metal drawer and reveals a temperature-controlled hospital crib. Once the baby is inside and the drawer is closed, it will lock automatically; the parent cannot open it again. An alarm will be triggered and facility personnel will have access to the crib. The box also sends out a 911 call. Twenty-one babies have been left in the boxes since 2017, and the average time a child is in the box is less than two minutes, Ms Kelsey said.
She has raised money to put up dozens of billboards advertising the safe harbor. The ads include a photo of a handsome firefighter cradling a newborn and the emergency number for the Safe Haven Baby Box.
Ms. Kelsey said she was in contact with lawmakers across the country who wanted to bring the boxes to their region, and predicted her boxes would be in all 50 states within five years.
“We all agree that a baby should be placed in my box and not in a container to die,” she said.
Due to anonymity, there is limited information about the parents using safe harbors. But dr. Orliss, of the Los Angeles Safe Harbor Clinic, conducts psychological and developmental assessments on about 15 such babies each year, often following them through their toddler years. To be research found that more than half of children have health or developmental problems, often as a result of inadequate prenatal care. In California, unlike in Indiana, the safe harbor surrender must be done in person, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious problems such as drug use.
Yet many children do well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing executive in southern Indiana, adopted her 3-year-old daughter, Nola, after the girl was dropped off at a safe harbor just hours after she was born. Ms. Higgs said the birth mother called the Safe Haven Baby Box hotline after seeing one of the group’s billboards.
“From day one she has been so healthy and happy and thriving and has surpassed all developmental milestones,” Ms. Higgs said of Nola. “She’s perfect in our eyes.”
Legal gray areas
For some women seeking help, the first point of contact is the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency phone.
That hotline, and another maintained by the Safe Haven National Alliance, tells callers where and how to legally give up children, along with information about the traditional adoption process.
Safe-haven groups say they inform callers that anonymous surrender is a last resort, and provide information on how to keep their babies, including ways to get diapers, rent money and temporary childcare.
“When a woman is given options, she will choose what’s best for her,” Ms Kelsey said. “And if that means choosing a playpen in her moment of crisis, we should all support her in her decision.”
But Ms. Kelsey’s hotline won’t talk about the legal time limits for reuniting with the baby unless callers ask, she said.
In Indiana, which has the most playpens, state law does not specify a timeline for ending birth rights after safe-haven surrender, or for adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, the district attorney in Owen County, Ind., who has experience with baby abandonment laws in the state, biological families are free to come forward until a court terminates parental rights, which is 45 up to 60 days after an anonymous statement. surrender.
Because these distances are anonymous, they usually lead to closed adoptions. Birth parents cannot select the parents and adoptees have little to no information about their family of origin or medical history.
mr. Hanlon, of the National Adoption Council, be on research showing that biological parents are more satisfied in the long run about giving up their children if biological and adoptive families maintain a relationship.
And in safe havens, if a mother changes her mind, she must prove to the state that she is fit.
According to Ms Kelsey, two women who said they had boxed their babies since her surgery began tried to reclaim custody of their children. Such cases can take months or even years to resolve.
Birth mothers are also not immune to legal risks and may not be able to navigate the technicalities of each state’s safe harbor law, said Lori Bruce, a medical ethicist at Yale.
While many states protect mothers who surrender from criminal charges if babies are healthy and unharmed, mothers in severe crisis situations — such as those dealing with addiction or domestic violence — may not be protected if their newborns are affected in some way.
The idea that a traumatized, postpartum mother would be able to “google the laws correctly is thin,” Ms Bruce said.
With Roe’s demise, “we know we’ll see more abandoned babies,” she added. “My concern is that this means more prosecutors can prosecute women for abandoning their children unsafely – or not following the letter of the law.”
That said, the movement is moving fast.
Mrs. Higgs, the adoptive mother, has kept in touch with Monica Kelsey of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I heard about Roe vs. Wade, I texted Monica and said, ‘Are you ready to get even busier?'”