Nebraska Safe Haven Act Misses The Point

     Nebraska was the last of the 50 states to pass a “safe haven” act, a movement started a few years ago when there was a great deal of publicity about young girls giving birth after a pregnancy they had kept secret, and then abandoning the baby (sometimes alive, more often not) in a restroom, dumpster, or other unfortunate place. State legislatures passed these acts very quickly, with a lot of emotion. Opposition to the acts was negligible, and pretty much unspeakable. Most such laws allowed for a newborn to be left, anonymously, in a designated public place, such as a hospital or even a fire station. The original intent was to prevent girls leaving babies in dumpsters or restrooms out of fear of prosecution. Nothing was addressed about the need for prenatal care, pregnancies kept secret out of fear and/or ignorance, or the child’s possible future need or desire to learn his/her heritage.
     The American Adoption Congress and other adoption groups raised the issue of anonymity not working in the child’s best interest, but the emotional climate was such that legislatures paid no attention. Most of the laws specified an age limit, such as three days or two weeks, after birth, when a child could be left without consequences. Some places even set up a system where a baby could be deposited in a box, and a nurse or someone would retrieve the child through an inside opening, sort of an airlock situation. New Mexico’s law stated ninety days, which made some wonder what would be happening to the child in the first three months. It also stated anyone could drop the baby off, so to speak, leaving the possibility that angry birth grandparents, a birth father eager to get out of responsibility, a nosy neighbor, or whoever had physical contact, might leave the baby at such a place.
     Most of these laws have had little effect, as babies have not been left. New Mexico claimed one had, but the child had been born at a local hospital and the mother’s identity was known. These laws were largely feel-good measures. Again, nothing was really said about the need for prenatal care, counseling for birth parents, or a person, presumably later adopted, needing or wanting to know who they really were.
     When Nebraska initially passed its “safe haven” law, due to the legislators’ inability to come to a consensus in the issue, it did not specify an age limit. The result, as was widely reported, was that up to 35 children, many of them teenagers, were abandoned in the state, primarily by parents who could not support them or just couldn’t handle raising them anymore. None of the children were newborns.
     Once these unintended consequences became apparent, Nebraska’s Legislature was called into special session to amend the law, which now specifies a 30-day age limitation. Again, nothing was said about the reasons a parent might be tempted to abandon a child, of whatever age, any no one seems willing to look below the surface to examine the root causes, which are poverty, fear, judgmentalism, lack of emotional and physical resources, shame and ignorance.
     There are still young people who literally don’t know how one becomes pregnant, thanks to bans on real education about sexuality and physiology. There are still young women who become pregnant by fathers, brothers, uncles, older neighbors, et al., who are terrified to tell anyone. There are still young women who believe their parents will kill them if they find out they are having sex, let alone that they are pregnant, and these are not unrealistic fears. There are still many young women with no access to medical care, no insurance, no funds, and no way to gain access to the help they need. There are even some who do not know they are pregnant until they give birth.
     These young women are not reading up on safe haven laws and making a plan to leave the baby at such a designated place. If they knew how to do that, they might also know how to contact an adoption agency or a doctor who could help them make a plan. These are not young women who would choose to have abortions, because, again, they don’t have access to medical care or counseling, or may not know they are pregnant until much too late.
     These laws do not address these issues. As for those who abandoned teenagers in Nebraska, again, where are the resources in our society for counseling, for help with parenting, for financial aid, even for food, shelter and clothing? This is not about a healthy, chubby-faced infant being left in a paper bag and some loving family adopting the child and living happily ever after, with the adoptee having no desire to know more. It’s about financial and emotional poverty, and a cultural poverty that does not really support people’s real needs.
     Until the Nebraska law brought the whole “safe haven” idea back to the forefront, concerns about abandoned babies had largely died down, and the laws were not much used, but the underlying issues still remain. In a time of cost-cutting and loss of access to medical care instead of increased help, perhaps each of us needs to contact our own legislators and express our views about the real causes of the abandonment of babies and children (including teenagers) and despair.

Excerpted from the January 2009 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2009 Operation Identity