Put up-Roe, conservatives promote methods to surrender newborns anonymously

The Safe Haven Baby Box by a fireplace in Carmel, Ind., looked like a book dropper from the library. It had been available for three years to anyone who wanted to hand over a baby anonymously.

However, no one had used it until the beginning of April. When the alarm went off, Victor Andres, a firefighter, opened the box and found, to his disbelief, a newborn boy wrapped in towels.

The discovery made the local TV news, which praised the mother’s courage and called it “a time for celebration.” Later that month, Andres pulled another newborn, a girl, out of the box. In May, a third baby appeared. By summer, three more babies were left in baby box locations across the state.

The baby boxes are part of the safety movement, which has long been closely tied to anti-abortion activism. Safe havens offer desperate mothers a way to anonymously surrender their newborns for adoption, and, advocates say, avoid harming, abandoning or even killing them. The refuges can be boxes that allow parents to avoid talking to anyone or even being seen when they hand their children over. More traditionally, the refuges are places like hospitals and fire stations, where staff are trained to accept a face-to-face handoff from a parent in crisis.

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

In the past five years, more than 12 states have passed laws allowing baby crates or expanding sanctuary opportunities in other ways. And safe harbor surrenders, 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 sanctuary laws offered an alternative to abortion by allowing women to avoid “the burden of parenthood.” In the court’s decision, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. cited sanctuary laws as a “modern development” that, in the majority’s view, obviated the need for abortion rights.

But for many adoption and women’s health experts, safe havens are hardly a panacea.

For them, a sanctuary surrender is a sign that a woman fell through the cracks of existing systems. They may have hidden their pregnancies and given birth without maternity care, or they may suffer from domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness or mental illness.

The adoptions themselves can also be problematic, with women potentially unaware that they are giving up their parents’ rights and children left with little information about their origins.

If a parent uses a sanctuary, “it’s been a crisis and the system has already failed in some way,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption.

Surrendering to safe havens is still rare. The National Safe Haven Alliance estimates that 115 legal surrenders took place in 2021. In recent years, there have been over 100,000 domestic adoptions annually and more than 600,000 abortions. Studies show that the vast majority of women denied an abortion are uninterested in adoption and continue to raise their children.

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

With Ms. Kelsey and allied lobbying across the country, states like Indiana, Iowa and Virginia have tried to make surrenders easier, faster and more anonymous — allowing older babies to be dropped off, or allowing parents to leave the scene without speaking. to another adult or share any medical history.

Some who work with children in shelters are particularly worried about the baby boxes. There are now more than 100 across the country.

“Is this infant surrendered without coercion?” asked Micah Orliss, director of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is this a parent who is struggling and could benefit from some time and discussion in a warm handoff experience to make their decision?”

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

She first encountered a baby “safe” – a concept dating back to medieval Europe – on a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was on an abstinence lecture tour.

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

To use one of Ms. Kelsey’s boxes, a parent pulls open a metal box to reveal a temperature-controlled hospital cart. Once the child is inside and the drawer is closed, it locks automatically; the parent cannot open it again. An alarm is triggered and facility staff can access the pool. The box also sends out a 911 call. Twenty-one babies have been left in the boxes since 2017, and the average time a child is in the box is less than two minutes, Kelsey said.

She has raised money to put up dozens of signs advertising the sanctuary option. The ads feature a photo of a handsome firefighter cradling a newborn, and the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency phone number.

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

“We can all agree that a child should be put in my box and not in a bin to die,” she said.

Because of the anonymity, there is limited information about the parents who use safe havens. But Dr. Orliss, of the Sanctuary Clinic in Los Angeles, performs psychological and developmental evaluations on about 15 such babies annually, often following them through their toddler years. His research found that more than half of the children have health or developmental problems, often due to inadequate maternal care. In California, unlike in Indiana, safe harbor surrenders must be done face-to-face, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious problems like drug use.

Nevertheless, many children are doing well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing manager in southern Indiana, adopted her 3-year-old daughter, Nola, after the girl was dropped off at a shelter just hours after her birth. Ms Higgs said the biological mother had called the Safe Haven Baby Box hotline after seeing one of the group’s signs.

“From day one, she’s been so healthy and happy and thriving and hitting all the developmental milestones,” 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 hotline.

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

Safe Haven says it informs callers that anonymous surrenders are a last resort and gives out information on how to keep their children, including ways to get diapers, rent money and temporary child care.

“When a woman is given options, she’s going to choose what’s best for her,” Kelsey said. “And if that means that in a moment of crisis she chooses a baby box, we should all support her in her decision.”

But Ms. Kelsey’s hotline does not discuss the legal time limits for reuniting with the child unless callers request it, she said.

In Indiana, which has the majority of baby boxes, state law does not specify a timeline for terminating birth parents’ rights after surrendering to sanctuary, or for adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, the Owen County, Ind., prosecutor who has experience with the state’s infant abandonment laws, biological families are free to come forward until a court terminates parental rights, which can occur 45 to 60 days after an anonymous surrender.

Because these waivers are anonymous, they usually result in closed adoptions. Birth parents cannot choose parents and adoptees are left with little or no information about their family of origin or medical history.

Mr. Hanlon, of the National Council for Adoption, pointed to research shows that in the long term, birth parents feel more satisfied with giving up their children if biological families and adoptive families maintain a relationship.

And in cases of sanctuary, 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 recycle custody of their children. Such 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 sanctuary laws, said Lori Bruce, a medical ethicist at Yale.

While many states protect surrendering mothers from prosecution if infants are healthy and unharmed, mothers in serious crisis — dealing with addiction or abuse in the home, for example — may not be protected if their newborns are in any way affected.

The idea that a post-partum traumatized mother should be able to “Google the laws properly is slim,” Bruce said.

With Roe’s passing, “we know we’re going to see more abandoned babies,” she added. “My concern is that this 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 legislation banning most abortions, with few exceptions.

And the security movement continues apace.

Ms Higgs, the adoptive mother, has been in contact with Monica Kelsey from Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I found out about Roe vs. Wade, I texted Monica and said, ‘Are you ready to get even busier?’

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