Safe Havens, Baby Boxes and Adoption–All Solutions to the Same Problem?

My last post was about a controversial European practice–the establishment of baby boxes.   There’s a lot of discussion there–I might not have picked up on all the comments–but I wanted to reframe the discussion here.    There are many different perspectives and many valid points to be made.  It’s not so much that I think we all need to agree in the end as that I think we should understand where we disagree.

One way to start is by observing that the three things listed above (baby boxes, safe haven laws and adoption) are all potential solutions to a single problem:  unwanted children.

They may not technically be exclusive solutions–by which I mean that you could have baby  boxes or safe havens and then place those babies for adoption.   In fact, I think this is what is commonly done.    But one point that has been made forcefully in the discussions on the earlier post is that to the extent adoption is premised on various procedures that protect rights of all those involved, both baby boxes and safe havens short circuit those procedures.  

From that point of view, baby boxes and safe havens are just variations on a theme and the theme is inconsistent with the proper process of adoption.  If you have/use baby boxes/safe havens, then you give people a way of circumventing the adoption protections.   While it may not be the most important point, one thing I would emphasize is that using either of these devices means that the child will not have access to its genetic parents.

Now in a perfect world the problem (unwanted children) is one that wouldn’t arise–or maybe it would arise only very rarely.   In a perfect world, women would have control  over their fertility and would only have children when the children were wanted.   Whether one achieves this utopian end by access to safe and legal abortion or by effective contraception is really not important, because I think we can all agree that in this country we aren’t near to that ideal world and we are not likely to come near to it anytime soon.   What that means (to me, anyway) is that you need to confront the problem–you cannot deny its existence and you cannot make it go away.

I do think you can view adoption as a solution to the unwanted children problem.    (Consistent with that I have read that as contraception and abortion have become more widely available fewer children are available for adoption.)   The question is whether adoption is, by itself, an adequate solution.

I’m afraid it is not.   I think I’d rather it was.  But when you read about babies found in dumpsters , what else can you conclude?   (I chose the most recent story I could find, just to have a specific instance to point to.)

It seems clear that there are instances where women cannot or will not avail themselves of the adoption option.   This might be because they do not know or willfully deny that they are pregnant, or because they operate outside a system of prenatal care that can help them evaluate the option, or because they are afraid of their own families reactions if they reveal their pregnancies.

It seems clear to me that some of these women will give birth under harrowing circumstances and will abandon their child.  That, of course, is criminal.   You can be prosecuted and you can go to jail.   But these women are already in extreme situations and some of them won’t be deterred.   They cannot keep their babies.  They are not engaged in the adoption system.   They will abandon their infants.

If you give them an option of a safe place–a safe haven–some of them may choose to abandon a child there.   I will assume that we can all agree that for that particular child, this is a better option than the dumpster or the bathroom or the alleyway.   That’s the whole idea behind safe haven laws.

At the same time, some women who would otherwise use adoption might short-circuit the process by using safe-havens.   That’s a downside risk one has to acknowledge.   To me, the critical questions are these:  How many women who would ordinarily go through adoption processes instead use safe havens?   What is the harm done to children by that?   How many children are placed in safe havens who would otherwise be endangered?  What is the harm done to them if safe havens are not available?

These are partly empirical questions–you could actually try to count these things–and partly value question–what is the harm of skipping out on the adoption process?   But for me, it seems clear that some children will die if we don’t have safe haven provisions and that seems a pretty good reason to have them.   As with so many things, I’d hope that we could fine-tune the process to make it as effective for the limited purpose as possible and to minimize misuse.

A bunch of other concerns about safe havens have also been raised:  Could children be kidnapped and placed in a safe haven against the will of the mother, for instance?   I suppose it is possible (though I skept about whether this has actually happened with any frequency) but I also think there are measures we can take to guard against that and to ensure that children placed in safe havens have not been snatched.

It’s also true that you could say that safe haven laws aren’t the answer either–because Arizona (where that story I linked to comes from ) has a safe haven law and it didn’t save that child’s life.   But all that tells me is that safe haven laws aren’t a complete answer either.   This doesn’t meant that they are without value.

Before I go (and I know this is getting long) I want to highlight one solution available in France but not here:  A woman can go to a hospital and give birth anonymously.   I think this is not supposed to happen in this country–if you go to a hospital your name will be recorded.    This is a policy option worth considering–maybe next time.

8 responses to “Safe Havens, Baby Boxes and Adoption–All Solutions to the Same Problem?

  1. Katherine O’Donovan in England has written some good stuff about the European approaches

    • I’ll take a stab at tracking that down.

    • interesting that you say a woman can not give birth anonymously in a hospital. If she shows up in labor, i don’t believe the hospital is allowed to withhold care. Can they really force her to provide her name, much less a true name?
      I myself cared actually for a girl with a relatively minor condition who gave us a fake name. we cared for her without forcing ID.
      (this was discovered when she called her mom from the hospital… turned out to have been a 16 year old runaway…)

      • I’m sure that in fact people (women) do give false names or refuse to provide identifying info and you must be right about the requirement to provide care. But I think it is true that in the US there is no right to give birth anonymously. If you give birth then you are supposed to provide your name for the vital statistics recording stuff. I gather than it France you can actually leave the mother blank “unknown” or something like that.

        Really, though, I’m not sure how the system works in France. There’s a reference in the article to anonymous birth preserving the possibility of subsequent contact between parent and child. I’m not sure how it does that. Just because you could track back to the hospital and go from there if you wanted to? Or maybe the anonymity is ensured as far as a birth record.

        To the extent that allowing anonymity with a hospital birth allows for better medical care for the mother and child you can see why some will say it is preferable to the baby boxes and safe havens.

  2. Malarkey. It seems clear to you that some children will die if there are not safe haven laws? Oh BS. How can that be clear to you? Parents who don’t want to, or cannot raise their child, have been putting their baby on the doorsteps with notes and diapers for centuries; they will do it whether or not there is a safe haven law. Parents who don’t want to kill their newborn won’t and those who do want to will regardless of any safe haven law.

    This law makes it sound as if the focus of the law is providing a safe place to leave an unwanted infant when really what is about is providing a means of giving up an infant without any investigation into his or her origins to make swift the adoption process.

    While you cannot prove that it will save lives, I can prove that it will discourage parental accountability to and for ones own offspring because that is the crux of the law – to decriminalize parental abandonment. Why would we want to decriminalize parental abandonment? Because rich people want fat white infants with no back-story. They want foundlings and there are no foundlings anymore; they all have meddlesome birth families that will be there hovering in the background as a constant reminder that the adoptive parents are not the child’s real parents.

    What the world needs is more 18th century foundlings. Real orphans whose parents are dead or as good as dead.

    My husband once worked with a man who was abandoned on the door steps of a Korean church. There were no safe haven laws. He was a real live chubby little foundling. Luckily the details of his abandonment were so obscure that he googled and hit like a firecracker with all the relatives searching for him. If his parents had wanted to do away with him they would have but they did not despite the absense of safe haven laws they left him on a doorstep and took their chances that they would not get in trouble for it. This whole thing is a masquerade to farm foundlings Julie nothing more.

    Look at China seriously with all those pretend foundling kidnapped girls. Seriously. They all are found with little notes pinned to them and nobody does any background investigation. That is what the baby box is about. Its a foundling machine, a history eraser. History matters. Accountability matters. The truth matters. The truth always matters and it need not be a trade off.

    Telling a person that you had to erase their history to save their life is profoundly insulting. Telling someone that their parents did not have to be accountable to or for them is profoundly insulting. Telling someone were it not for legalized abandonment like gamete donation or a baby box that they would not be alive today is so sick and so rude and so disgustingly presumptuous as to create a second class of people with fewer rights and insult them by telling them that it was for their own good. It enrages me. It makes my blood boil and as tiny as I am and though I know my voice makes no difference in my small way I will not stand for it. I will try hard to fight those laws and will help people that fight against them. I spend so much of my free time trying to help people get back what should not have been taken because I don’t want to be apathetic to a system that creates a second class. That is not freedom and it saves nothing but face.

    We should be concerned about giving all people equal rights once they are born and we should be concerned with holding all biological parents to an identical standard of care once their offspring are born or we will not be doing those children in the boxes justice.

    • First–a note about tone. If I say something seems clear to me, that’s what I mean. I don’t think it’s terribly civil to open–as you do–by suggesting that this isn’t true. I would hope that by now we have enough of a history that you would know that I try to say what I mean–even if I don’t always get it right. It’s just not starting out on the right foot (with me or most other people) to call BS. If you want to know how it can be clear to me, just ask.

      I will concede that I probably cannot prove anything here–I don’t have a controlled experiment or anything to refer to. But here is why it seems clear to me.

      There are young and isolated single women who become pregnant. Sometimes they will be afraid to tell their family or their friends that they are pregnant. They will do what they can to conceal their condition. They will not seek prenatal care. (Will you agree with me this far? I won’t keep asking but I wonder where we begin to disagree.)

      Some of these women will give birth in secret and in isolation. And then they will have to figure out what to do with a newborn. They aren’t hooked in to any system that can connect them up with adoption.

      So what will they do with the newborn? Some will leave it on a church doorstep. Some will leave it in a dumpster or a garbage can in the bathroom they gave birth. Obviously the outcome for these infants depends very much on whether they can be discovered and cared for in time. Sometimes they are and, alas, sometimes they are not. .

      Now I don’t think the young women who do this are necessarily cruel and heartless. I think it is far more likely that they are frightened and alone. If you give them a route by which they can get safely get rid of the child, some of them will take use it. And so some children who would otherwise be endangered will be safe.

      Of course, not all the endangered abandoned newborns will come to harm–as I said–some will and some will not. But still, I’ll end with what set you off in the first place–it seems clear to me that some of the infants taken to firehouses or hospitals would have been left in alleys and dumpsters and some of those who were left in those places would have died. Is this really such an unreasonable conclusion to reach?

      All that said, I do see that safe haven laws can be abused–by which I mean they can be used by those they were not intended for. That’s worth thinking about, too. You’ve referred to proof that they discourage parental accountability. I can see several ways in which this could be the case. Can you point me to the proof you’re referring to?

  3. Just another interesting thing I have found with safe haven- that parents who expected a healthy child but have a child born with a genetic condition, that they do not feel they can parent, are using safe haven to leave the child with a disability.

    • That’s an interesting aspect to think about. Is there some documentation for this or do you speak from experience?

      It’s not hard to see how this could happen and it would be an instance where the adoption process is subverted. There are, after all, formal channels for giving up a child. But that said, your observation does make me think. Given that we, as a society, provide so little support for people raising disabled kids I wouldn’t be quick to judge those who find it overwhelming. I’m tempted to say that in a perfect world parents of a disabled child would be provided with the support and resources they need, but that’s just an ideal. What about in the meantime?

      What this brings to the fore (for me, at least) is that there is yet another balancing act: The process we use for giving up parental rights via adoption needs to be formal enough to ensure protection of the interests of those involved (including the interests of the child in having eventual access to information about her/his birth parents) but the more cumbersome it becomes the more likely people will look for ways around it–like safe-havens.

      I am reminded that I originally wrote about safe haven laws three-and-a-half years ago (and it seems like only yesterday). (THere are a bunch of related posts from around that time.) In what I think was a legislative accident, Nebraska ended up with a safe haven law that allowed for abandonment of children up to 19 years of age. It turned out to be rather a popular option, but it wasn’t at all what people had in mind. But you can look back at that story, too, and see the same balancing–people can give up their parental rights, but we don’t want to make it too easy (or too informal) to do so.

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