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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 abandoning their 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 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 locations without having to disclose their identity or without being asked questions.

Conditions for Relinquishing a Baby

Most states limit the age of who may be placed in a designated 'safe haven' to infants 72 hours old or younger, while other states 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 to relinquish a child, and a few of those states require that he or she have legal custody of the child to do so. Lastly, a handful of states do not specify the relationship of the person to the infant.

Designated Safe Haven Locations

The idea of a safe haven location is somewhere where the baby will receive immediate care. Leaving a baby somewhere when no one is around does not qualify. Most states outline locations considered 'safe havens.' These locations may 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 emphasis that parents must relinquish unwanted infants to a place where the infant can receive immediate care.

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

  • Inform the parent that by surrendering the child she is releasing the child for adoption
  • Inform the parent that reasonable efforts will be made to locate the non-relinquishing parent (and ask the parent to release the name of the other parent)
  • Encourage the parent to provide relevant family or medical information
  • Transfer the child to a hospital (if safe haven is not a hospital)
  • Have the child examined by a physician (if safe have is a hospital)
  • Notify a child-placing agency

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.

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, you may be required to provide your name and family history (although some states will guarantee this information remains confidential.) Note that you will forfeit your right to anonymity and criminal liability if you have abused or otherwise neglected the child in any way.

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, like 28 days) to regain custody.

Father's Rights

In most states, a child-placing agency must make "reasonable efforts" to identify and locate the non-relinquishing parent (typically the father) by posting 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 who might otherwise end up in dumpsters or along public roads. 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.

Reclaiming Custody

Some states allow parents who change their mind to reclaim custody of a relinquish child within a certain time period after 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. (Note that a parent who surrenders a child and does not file a custody action is presumed to have knowingly released his or her parental rights.)

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. A 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 before 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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