Safe Haven Laws

The laws seek to prevent mothers from leaving their unwanted newborn babies in unsafe, potentially deadly, places like dumpsters or on the side of roadways.

States have enacted safe haven laws to help stop mothers from leaving their abandoned babies in unsafe locations. These laws allow mothers to leave their unwanted babies in designated places such as hospitals or churches without fearing criminal charges.

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

  • To protect unwanted babies from potential harm and safety hazards
  • To provide parents with an alternative to child abandonment charges

Every state has a safe haven law, but state laws vary on the following:

  • Age limits
  • The individuals who may surrender a child
  • Circumstances required to relinquish an infant child

Parents can leave newborns in safe places without disclosing their identity or being subject to questions in most cases. This article discusses the differences between states' safe haven acts.

Conditions for Relinquishing a Baby

Infant safe haven laws vary depending on the state. For instance, the age of the newborn child that may be relinquished depends on the state.

Some states limit the age of newborn children to infants who are 72 hours old or younger. A few states that have this law include:

  • Alabama (Note: In 2023, the law was amended to expand the length of time in which you may surrender an infant to 45 days)
  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Wisconsin

Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Vermont accept infants up to 30 days of age.

Who Can Leave Unwanted Infants

States also determine who may leave unwanted babies in a designated location. The usual person is the child's mother. Depending on state laws, sometimes the father has this right.

Additionally, some states (Arizona and Utah) allow someone other than a parent to relinquish a child.

However, the individual must have the parent's approval. In states including California and New York, you must be the parent or have legal custody of the child to do so.

A handful of states do not specify the surrendering person's relationship to the infant. These states include:

  • Delaware
  • Nebraska
  • Maine
  • South Carolina

Look up the law to learn about specific conditions under the safe haven laws of your state. As some states have amended their laws within the past several years, be sure to verify current law under your state's code.

Most states provide FAQ pages and helplines to answer birth parents' questions about leaving their child at a safe haven.

Designated Safe Haven Locations

Leaving a baby somewhere with no one around does not qualify under any state's safe haven act. If you leave your newborn infant in places that aren't safe havens, you could face charges for infant abandonment.

Most states outline locations considered "safe havens." These are safe places where the law applies. These examples include:

  • Hospitals/Health care clinics/other medical facilities
  • Police stations
  • Fire stations
  • Emergency medical technicians (EMTs)
  • Churches
  • "Baby box" locations

Safety Standards for Safe Haven Locations

To qualify as a safe haven, the site must be a safe place for newborns. States emphasize that parents must relinquish unwanted infants to a place where the infant can receive immediate medical care.

The need for medical services makes healthcare facilities ideal for safe-haven babies.

Furthermore, depending on the state, safe haven service providers must take the infant into custody and seek or provide any necessary medical care. They may also be required to 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 the authorities will make reasonable efforts 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/medical information
  • 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

States typically give immunity to safe haven providers for anything that might happen to an infant in their care unless there is evidence of gross negligence or child abuse.

Depending on the state, the Department of Children & Family Services will investigate child abuse reports. This department is sometimes called the Department of Children and Families, Department of Social Services, Department of Human Services, or something similar.

What Happens When I Relinquish an Unwanted Baby?

Relinquishing an unwanted baby to the care of a safe haven provider relieves you of any criminal liability and your parental rights to the child.

In some states, like Tennessee and Texas, you may be requested to provide your name and family medical history when relinquishing a child. In both states, this information may be requested but is not required to be provided by the parent.

Most states, including Arkansas, Maine, and Wisconsin, keep this information confidential for the parent. However, a person who relinquishes an infant could face criminal liability if there is evidence of child abuse or neglect.

Safe Haven Infants and Adoption

You also have the right to be informed by safe haven staff that by surrendering the child, you are releasing the child for adoption.

You also have the right to be told that you can petition the court in your state (within a set period, often 28 or 30 days) to regain custody if you change your mind.

Non-Relinquishing Parent's Rights

In most states, a child-placing agency must make "reasonable efforts" to identify and locate the non-relinquishing parent.

The agency posts a notice in a publication, such as a newspaper, in the county where the parent surrendered the child.

Controversies in Safe Haven Laws

Safe haven laws have undergone significant controversy. Critics believe that safe haven laws encourage easy baby disposal.

In contrast, supporters believe the laws encourage safe surrenders and 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. Infanticide is killing an infant, usually by the mother, within one year of the infant's birth.

Furthermore, some critics argue that if the laws are too broad (like those previously in Nebraska), states will end up with unintended consequences. Some consequences include parents who leave older children and problem teenagers at doorsteps.

Even so, each state has codified its 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 specific time after the surrender. The procedure for reclaiming custody varies by state.

The procedure 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.

Do Safe Haven Laws Protect You? Get an Attorney's Help

You may be facing circumstances that make giving up your baby necessary. You should 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 staff members who can help answer your questions confidentially. However, consider hiring representation that advocates for you to fully understand your parental rights.

family law attorney can explain the law and keep your information confidential. They may also be able to offer alternatives, such as placing the baby with an adoption agency following birth.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Adopting a child is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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