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Safe Haven Laws

There have been countless stories of mothers leaving their unwanted newborn babies in unsafe places like dumpsters or on the side of roadways, mostly out of fear or desperation. To help stop mothers from leaving their abandoned babies in unsafe locations, states have enacted safe haven laws that allow mothers to leave their unwanted babies in designated locations such as hospitals or churches without fear of being charged with a crime.

Safe haven laws, also known as "Baby Moses laws," serve a dual purpose:

  1. To protect unwanted babies from potential harm and safety hazards, and,
  2. To provide parents with an alternative to child abandonment charges.

Currently, all 50 states have safe haven laws on the books, varying between the age limit, persons who may surrender a child, and circumstances required to relinquish an infant child. In most cases, parents can leave newborns in safe places without having to disclose their identity or without being asked questions.

This article discusses the differences between states' safe haven acts.

Conditions for Relinquishing a Baby

Infant safe haven laws change depending on the state. Some states limit the age of who may be placed in a designated 'safe haven' to infants 72 hours old or younger. A few examples of these states include Alabama, California, Hawaii, and Wisconsin. Other states, like Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Vermont, may accept infants up to 1 month of age.

States determine who may leave unwanted babies in a designated location, the obvious being the mother of the child (and sometimes fathers depending on the state laws). In addition, some states allow someone other than a parent with the parent's approval to relinquish a child, such as Arizona, and Utah. Other states, like California and New York, require that they have legal custody of the child to do so. Lastly, a handful of states including Delaware, Nebraska, Maine, and South Carolina do not specify the relationship of the person to the infant.

For specific conditions under the safe haven laws of your state, research your state's safe haven laws. Most states' webpages provide a FAQ page and helpline to help answer questions a birth parent may have when considering leaving their child at a safe haven.

Designated Safe Haven Locations

Leaving a baby somewhere with no one around does not qualify under any states' safe haven act. Most states outline locations considered “safe havens," safe places where the law applies. These examples include health care clinics, police stations, fire stations, emergency medical technicians (EMT), churches, and other “safe" places a state deems acceptable. To qualify as a safe haven, most states emphasize that parents must relinquish unwanted infants to a place where the infant can receive immediate medical care.

Furthermore, depending on the state, safe haven service providers must take the infant into custody, provide any necessary medical care, and do the following:

  • Immediately call the child protective services hotline
  • Inform the birth parents that by surrendering the child they are releasing the child for adoption
  • Inform the birth parents that reasonable efforts will be made to locate the non-relinquishing parent (and ask the parent to release the name of the other parent, if they're not present)
  • Encourage the birth parents to provide relevant family or medical history
  • Transfer the child to hospital staff (if the safe haven is not a hospital)
  • Have the child examined by a physician (if the safe haven is a hospital)
  • Notify a child-placing agency, that will arrange foster care or contact adoptive parents

Even so, states typically give immunity to safe haven providers for anything that might happen to the infant while in their care, unless there is gross negligence or evidence of child abuse. The Department of Children & Family Services (sometimes called the Department of Children and Families, or the Department of Social Services, or something like it depending on the state) will investigate reports of child abuse.

What Happens When You Relinquish an Unwanted Baby

Relinquishing an unwanted baby to the care of a safe haven provider relieves you of any criminal liability, but also relieves you of your parental rights to the child. In some states, like Tennessee and Texas, you may be required to provide your name and family history when relinquishing a child. Seventeen states, including Arkansas, Main, and Wisconsin, keep this information confidential for the parent. However, parents will forfeit their rights to anonymity and may face criminal liability if there is evidence of child abuse or neglect.

You also have the right to be informed by safe haven staff that by surrendering the child, you are releasing the child for adoption and that you have the right to petition the court in your state (within a set time period, often 28 days) to regain custody.

Non-Reliquinshing Parent's Rights

In most states, a child-placing agency must make "reasonable efforts" to identify and locate the non-relinquishing parent by posting a notice in a publication such as a newspaper in the county where the child was surrendered.


Safe haven laws have undergone much controversy. Critics believe that safe haven laws encourage easy baby disposal, while supporters believe the laws protect unwanted babies from becoming abandoned babies who might end up in dumpsters or along public roads. These supporters also advocate that such laws prevent infanticide.

Furthermore, some critics argue that if the laws are too broad (like those previously in Nebraska) states will end up with unintended consequences -- such as parents who leave older children and problem teenagers at door steps. Even so, each state has codified their own infant safe haven laws.

Reclaiming Custody

Some states allow birth parents who change their minds to reclaim custody of a relinquished child within a certain time period after the surrender. The procedure for reclaiming custody varies by state but is typically initiated by filing an action with the court for custody. The court will then determine custody based on the child's best interest.

Are You Protected by Safe Haven Laws? Get an Attorney's Help

Whatever the circumstances are that make giving up your baby necessary, it is important that you know what the safe haven laws in your state are before you make that decision. Most states have a statewide, toll-free helpline staffed with individuals who can help answer your questions confidentially. However, to fully understand your parental rights, you may want to consider hiring representation that advocates for you specifically.

family law attorney can explain the law and keep your information confidential. They may also be able to offer alternatives, such as deciding to give the baby up for adoption when it is born.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney specializing in adoptions.

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