New York Times

August 31, 2001

Few Women Choose to Abandon Newborns at Legal Havens

By NINA BERNSTEIN
New York Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. Jamie Marie Smith was 19 when she gave birth on the floor of her trailer home here last December, hours after leaving her night-shift job. Her 2-year-old son was the only one with her.

The next night, Ms. Smith, who is not married, went looking for somewhere to leave her baby. She settled on a brightly lighted apartment complex. There, in an empty hallway, she left the sleeping infant in a cardboard box.

It was not supposed to work that way. Six months before, as part of a national trend, Indiana passed a so- called safe haven law. These laws allow a person to leave an infant anonymously and without fear of prosecution at a hospital, a fire station or another designated place. Indiana's law was a response to the highly publicized death of an abandoned newborn in a hospital parking lot.

"I wasn't doing a lot of thinking," said Ms. Smith, who said she was unaware of the safe haven law. "I just knew I wanted him to be taken care of and I couldn't do it." The baby boy was found and adopted, while Ms. Smith was prosecuted, accused of criminal neglect.

While 35 states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, have adopted safe haven laws in the last two years, sometimes with considerable efforts to promote them, there is little evidence that they are having the desired effect.

Of the first 16 states that passed the laws, only six reported safe haven babies in a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. And babies continue to be abandoned illegally in states with the laws more frequently, in some cases, than in states without them.

"The bottom line is, we know so little about the whole issue," said Nina Williams-Mbengue, the policy specialist who is tracking infant abandonment for the organization of state legislatures. "We don't even know if it's increasing or decreasing."

The emergence of the laws was a significant change in policy. "A practice we generally regard as primitive dropping your children by the wayside has suddenly become favored and promoted," said Joan Hollinger, a professor of family law at the University of California at Berkeley.

In large measure, the laws were reactions to a number of attention- getting cases. On Sept. 1, 1999, Texas enacted the nation's first safe haven law, spurred by the discovery in Houston of 13 abandoned babies in 10 months. Other states quickly followed with similar laws.

Politicians and advocates found the spirit of the legislation easy to embrace. Conservatives liked the fact that the laws promised to save babies without spending money; liberals liked the idea that they were not punitive. Anti-abortion groups promoted them in their fight against abortion, and some Planned Parenthood affiliates latched on to promote contraception.

But the speed of the laws' acceptance left little time for a thorough discussion of whether they work, or even the dimensions of the problem they were intended to address.

The numbers used to make the case for the laws were sketchy at best. Babies found dead or discarded in unsafe places are a tiny portion of those abandoned; most are left safely in hospitals.

Moreover, the closest thing to a national estimate of the problem continues to be an unpublished report by the Department of Health and Human Services comparing reports of infant abandonment in 1991 and 1998. The study, which was based on a computer search of news items, found accounts of 105 discarded babies in 1998 and 65 in 1991.

But the study said the seeming increase to an average of 2.1 babies per state out of 4 million births could have been the result of an expanding news database and growing media interest in such news.

"People used this really poor data to talk about an epidemic," said Caroline Burry, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland. "Laws are passed based on one case, one person who has a loud voice."

States are still not collecting information on how many infants are abandoned in this manner, Ms. Williams-Mbengue said. "For the babies who come into the hospital, we have no way to know whether the mother would have tried to go through an adoption agency to legally relinquish the baby, or if this is a person who would have left a baby by the roadside," she said.

Even defining these babies can be problematic. Child welfare officials in New York City said the infant cited as the city's first safe haven baby this year was actually born in a hospital. In the only other case, an illegal immigrant leaving her newborn with the police changed her mind when she found help. At the same time, medical examiner records show that 10 abandoned infants have been found dead in New York City since the law took effect in February 2000.

What information does exist varies widely. Of the 15 states that passed the laws in 2000, several have had no infants dropped off at safe havens. In Minnesota, for example, the only baby discovered was found dead in a bathroom stall. In Louisiana, four infants were illegally abandoned; three died. In Florida, where firefighters now get foundling kits with pacifiers and umbilical clamps, officials counted 11 illegal abandonments and 4 deaths.

Other states report a more mixed experience. In California, three infants were illegally abandoned, one left at a safe haven. Connecticut recovered one baby at a safe haven and another near a highway. New Jersey, which spent $500,000 to promote the law, counted six babies left at safe havens, found one on a doorstep and another in an abandoned car.

The laws' champions contend that a lack of public awareness is the main obstacle to making them work. They argue that the increase in children left at safe havens in Texas four infants were turned over last year likely was a response to a $200,000 media campaign. So states are stepping up publicity, like the decals at Florida firehouses proclaiming "A Safe Baby Station: Leave a Baby in Safety."

But experts on infant abandonment say the problem goes deeper. They say it is unrealistic to expect the young women most traumatized by a secret delivery, and typically more fearful of a parent's reaction than a prosecutor's, to seek a safe haven. They say the women most likely to respond to publicity campaigns are unlikely to endanger their infants to begin with.

"Whether the people who actually use safe havens are the group it's targeted at, is in doubt," said John Krall, chief analyst for the National Abandoned Infants Resource Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

A 1998 federal survey of hospitals showed that 31,000 infants were left in maternity wards, mostly by drug- addicted mothers. Thousands more newborns are legally relinquished through adoption agencies. Critics of safe haven laws argue that publicity may divert women from these safer options to a legal abandonment that minimizes the responsibilities and rights of fathers and leaves children without a family history.

The laws' proponents counter that this is an infant's last safety net.

"We should go as far as we can to save a child's life," said James W. Merritt, a sponsor of the Indiana law.

The case of Ms. Smith underscores human realities that the laws may not take into account.

Ms. Smith and her first child now live with her father in a ranch-style house. In an interview, Ms. Smith interrupted her laconic account of infant abandonment with loving responses to her now 21/2-year-old.

When she realized that she was pregnant, Ms. Smith, working nights at Wal-Mart, felt she could not care for a second baby, she said. She had been unable to get child support or to qualify for food stamps. Because her parents had persuaded her not to put her first baby up for adoption, she did her best to hide this pregnancy from them. She gave birth on Dec. 21, while her boyfriend, Joseph Nguyen, was at a Christmas party. She would have gone to a hospital, she said, but had no insurance.

The next day she tried fruitlessly to find a home for the baby through the classified advertisements.

"If I knew then what I know now," Ms. Smith said, "I would have done something differently, not just pulled out the paper `Hey, I just had a baby, do you want him?' "

At about 10 that night, police records show, Mr. Nguyen asked an emergency room nurse where to leave a baby awaiting adoption, but was told, "We do not handle that." He then went to sleep.

At 11:30 p.m., Ms. Smith bundled the baby and set out. The infant was found about half an hour later. Police alerted the news media. Eventually, Ms. Smith's mother learned about the baby and persuaded her daughter to turn herself in.

Ms. Smith, arrested and charged, faced three and a half years in prison. She was asked to leave Wal- Mart, and her father took custody of her first child.

In May, she received a year's suspended sentence in a plea agreement.

On that winter night, she would have taken her newborn to a hospital, except for the fear of "a big bill that I couldn't pay," she said.

Without hearing from such mothers, said Ms. Williams-Mbengue, of the organization of state legislatures, it is hard for states to judge the efficacy of safe haven laws.

"We've got to look real closely at the young women," she said, "and why they're doing this."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company