After Roe, Conservatives promote a way to give up newborns anonymously

The Safe Haven Baby Box at a fire station in Carmel, Indiana looked like a library book. It had been available for three years to anyone who wanted to deliver a baby anonymously.

However, no one had used it until early April. When the alarm sounded, Víctor Andrés, a firefighter, opened the box and found, to his disbelief, a newborn boy wrapped in towels.

The discovery was featured on local television news, which praised the mother’s courage, calling it “a moment of celebration.” Later that month, Mr. Andrés took another newborn, a girl, out of the box. In May a third baby appeared. For the summer, three more babies stayed at baby box locations across the state.

The baby boxes are part of the safe haven movement, which has long been closely associated with anti-abortion activism. Safe havens offer desperate mothers a way to anonymously give up their newborns for adoption and, advocates say, avoid harming, abandoning or even killing them. Shelters can be boxes, which allow parents to avoid talking to anyone or even being seen when delivering their babies. More traditionally, shelters are places like hospitals and fire stations, where staff members are trained to accept a face-to-face transfer from a parent in crisis.

All 50 states have safe haven laws intended to protect self-surrendering mothers from criminal charges. The first, known as the “Baby Moses” law, was passed in Texas in 1999, after several women abandoned their babies in garbage cans or dumpsters. But what began as a way to prevent the most extreme cases of child abuse has become a broader phenomenon, supported especially among the religious right, which strongly promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion.

Over the past five years, more than 12 states have passed laws allowing baby boxes or expanding safe haven options in other ways. And safe-haven renditions, reproductive health and child welfare experts say, are likely to become more common after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

During oral arguments in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Judge Amy Coney Barrett suggested that safe haven laws offered an alternative to abortion by allowing women to avoid “the burdens of parenthood.” In the court’s decision, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. cited the safe haven laws as a “modern development” that, in the majority view, obviated the need for abortion rights.

But for many adoption and women’s health experts, safe havens are not a panacea.

To them, the delivery of a safe haven is a sign that a woman has fallen through the cracks in existing systems. They may have hidden their pregnancies and given birth without prenatal care, or suffer from domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness, or mental illness.

Adoptions themselves could also be problematic, as women may not know they are terminating parental rights, and children are left with little information about their origins.

If a parent is using a safe haven, “there has been a crisis and the system has already failed in some way,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption.

Safe haven surrenders are still rare. The National Safe Haven Alliance estimates that 115 legal deliveries were made in 2021. In recent years, there have been more than 100,000 domestic adoptions a year and more than 600,000 abortions. Studies show that the vast majority of women who are denied an abortion are not interested in adoption and continue to raise their children.

But the safe haven movement has become much more prominent, in part due to a push from a charismatic activist with roots in anti-abortion activism, Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

With Ms. Kelsey and her allies lobbying across the country, states including Indiana, Iowa and Virginia have tried to make safe haven deliveries easier, faster and more anonymous, allowing older babies to be dropped off or parents quitters leave the scene without speaking. to another adult or share any medical history.

Some of those who work with safe haven children are concerned about the baby boxes, in particular. Now there are more than 100 across the country.

“Is this baby being delivered without coercion?” asked Micah Orliss, director of the Safe Delivery Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is this a father who is in a bad situation and could benefit from some time and discussion in a warm transfer experience to make his decision?”

Ms. Kelsey is a former doctor and firefighter, and an adoptee who says her teenage mother, who had been raped, abandoned her at birth.

He first encountered a baby “safe” — a concept that dates back to medieval Europe — on a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was on a pro-abstinence speaking tour.

She returned home to Indiana to found Safe Haven Baby Boxes, a nonprofit organization, and installed her first baby box in 2016.

To use one of Mrs. Kelsey’s boxes, a parent opens a metal drawer to reveal a temperature-controlled hospital crib. Once the baby is inside and the drawer is closed, it locks automatically; the parent cannot reopen it. An alarm is activated and facility staff members can access the bassinet. The box also sends a 911 call. There have been 21 babies left in the boxes since 2017, and the average amount of time a child is inside the box is less than two minutes, Ms. Kelsey said.

He has raised money to put up dozens of billboards advertising the safe haven option. The ads feature a photo of a handsome firefighter cradling a newborn and the Safe Haven Baby Box’s emergency hotline number.

Ms. Kelsey said she was in contact with legislators across the country who wanted to bring the boxes to their regions and predicted that within five years, their boxes would be in all 50 states.

“We can all agree that a baby should be placed in my box and not in a dumpster to die,” he said.

Due to anonymity, there is limited information on parents using safe havens. But Dr. Orliss, of the Los Angeles safe haven clinic, conducts psychological and developmental evaluations on about 15 of these babies annually, often following them until they are young. Their research found that more than half of children have health or developmental problems, often stemming from inadequate prenatal care. In California, unlike Indiana, safe haven deliveries must be done face-to-face, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious issues like drug use.

Still, many children do well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing manager in southern Indiana, adopted her 3-year-old daughter, Nola, after the girl was taken to safety within hours of her birth. Ms Higgs said the birth mother had called the Safe Haven Baby Box hotline after seeing one of the group’s billboards.

“From day one, she has been so healthy, happy, thriving, and passing all developmental milestones,” Ms. Higgs said of Nola. “She is perfect in our eyes.”

For some women seeking help, the first point of contact is the Safe Haven Baby Box’s emergency hotline.

That hotline, and another maintained by the Safe Haven National Alliance, tell people where and how they can legally surrender children, along with information about the traditional adoption process.

Safe haven groups say they let callers know that anonymous deliveries are a last resort and provide information on how to provide for their babies, including ways to get diapers, rent money and temporary child care.

“When a woman is given options, she chooses what is best for her,” said Ms. Kelsey. “And if that means that she chooses a baby box at a time of crisis, we should all support her in her decision.”

But Ms. Kelsey’s hotline doesn’t discuss legal time limitations on reuniting with the baby unless requested by callers, she said.

In Indiana, which has the most baby boxes, state law does not specify a time frame for the termination of birth parents’ rights after safe haven delivery or for adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, the district attorney for Owen County, Indiana, who has experience with child abandonment laws in the state, birth families are free to come forward until a court terminates parental rights, which can happen between 45 and 60 days after an anonymous declaration. Surrender.

Because these resignations are anonymous, they usually lead to closed adoptions. Birth parents cannot select parents, and adoptees are left with little or no information about their family of origin or medical history.

Mr. Hanlon, from the National Council for Adoption, pointed to the investigation showing that in the long run, biological parents are more satisfied to give up their children if the biological and adoptive families maintain a relationship.

And in safe haven cases, if a mother changes her mind, she must prove to the state that she is fit.

According to Ms. Kelsey, since her operation began, two women who said they had placed their babies in boxes have tried to claim custody of their children. These cases can take months or even years to resolve.

Birth mothers are also not immune from legal risks and may not be able to navigate the technicalities of each state’s safe haven law, said Lori Bruce, a medical ethicist at Yale.

While many states protect self-surrendering mothers from criminal prosecution if the babies are healthy and unharmed, mothers in serious crisis, for example facing addiction or domestic abuse, may not be protected if their newborns are affected in any way. some way.

The idea that a traumatized postpartum mother could “properly Google the laws is slim,” Bruce said.

With Roe’s death, “we know we will see more abandoned babies,” he added. “My concern is that that means more prosecutors will be able to prosecute women for unsafely abandoning their children, or not following the letter of the law.”

On Friday, Indiana’s governor signed a law that bans most abortions, with few exceptions.

And the safe haven movement continues apace.

Mrs. Higgs, the adoptive mother, has kept in touch with Monica Kelsey of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I found out about Roe v. Wade, I texted Monica and said, ‘Are you ready to get even busier?'”

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