After a 16-year-old was charged last week with drowning her newborn son in Port Angeles on Dec. 30, Department of Social and Health Services spokespeople urged reporters to get the word out again on the state’s safe haven law.
This is one time I feel good about being used. Here are the basics:
Under the Safety of Newborn Children’s Law, an unwilling parent can hand a baby up to 72 hours old over to a qualified person at a hospital emergency room or a fire station.
The parent can remain anonymous and will not be prosecuted. The baby goes into foster care, with adoption as a goal. The people receiving the baby offer medical care to the mom. They do their best to give the parent a list of resources, information on legal rights, a medical history form and a page for the parent to write a message to the baby.
All 50 states now have versions of the law. Since Washington’s passed in 2003, the state has been sensible about publicizing it. It sends information to crisis lines, teachers, health care workers and fire and law enforcement personnel.
It has a Web site (go to www.dshs.wa.gov and search under “safety of newborn children”) that last year got 2,596 hits. Of the people who visited, 795 also looked at the parent information packet.
And when a baby is killed or abandoned in an unsafe place, the state uses reporters to spread the word about the alternative.
Few teen girls, after all, keep current on state laws. But those who are pregnant, isolated and concealing their condition might learn about someone else in their predicament. It’s vital for them to know there’s a way they and the baby can go on with their lives.
About half bring their baby to a safe haven.
Robert Nelson, the Children’s Administration communications manager, had data on seven infants who were abandoned from 2003, when the law went into effect, through 2007.
Nelson’s state data show that one baby was left on a doorstep in 2003 and ended up in the father’s custody. In 2004 a child was delivered to a King County hospital and later adopted. In 2005, 2006 and 2007 babies were left at Pierce County hospitals and later adopted. In 2007, babies were left at a hospital and a church in King County, then adopted. There was no information on whether the woman who left the baby at the church was charged.
That information, Nelson said, is lacking. It doesn’t include a baby boy who was abandoned and died in Spokane in 2003, or a baby who was found in a bag near an Everett retention pond in 2006. That baby survived, and the young mom was prosecuted.
Nor do the data include the baby whose mother left her at a Federal Way church last fall. The girl survived, and the mother was charged with child abandonment.
Including the Port Angeles baby, that’s a total of 11 newborns. Two died. One survived being tossed in a bag. Two were left at churches. One was left on a doorstep. Five were saved the best way, through the safe haven law. A hospital or a fire station would have been the ideal option for all these babies, and their mothers.
Traumatic as each case was, the fact that the safe haven law has been needed only 11 times since 2003 is good news. It’s an indication that pregnant women and teens are getting the message about the importance and availability of prenatal medical care and, if they choose, the benefits of an organized adoption.
The law is emergency assistance for the babies whose moms don’t get those services. The three-day age limit covers the period when unwilling mothers are exhausted, isolated, in pain and desperate. It’s the time when the babies are in the most danger.
If the moms can make it through those first days and don’t want the babies, they still have access to a more orderly path to relinquishing them.
The safe haven law hasn’t resulted in a rush of women dropping off infants. Nor is there evidence that disgruntled relatives are abandoning newborns at hospitals.
The moms are encouraged to leave medical and family information as well as a personal message with the babies. Fathers who know about the pregnancy have a path to step up to their rights and responsibilities as a parent.
Washington’s safe haven law is saving lives. Spread the word.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677