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A haven, no questions asked
LAST MONTH, when a baby girl was left on a Newton doorstep, the public was left to imagine the desperation of whoever committed this act, and to ask why the state's "safe haven" law didn't seem to help.
Passed in 2004, the law is intended to prevent babies from being abandoned to the elements or even thrown in trash bins. As written, the measure sets the stage for a fragile interaction. Parents can surrender an infant who is seven days old or younger at a hospital or a police or fire station. No criminal charges are brought, and parents don't have to answer questions. Officials do tactfully seek medical information that could affect the child's future.
Since the law went into effect, seven babies have been legally surrendered, and four have been abandoned. To protect more infants, the law needs more muscular implementation. One step is to expand training for hospital workers, police, and firefighters so they can communicate better with parents who surrender infants.
But the safe-haven law also needs to be brought into sync with adoption laws. The state is looking to do so, according to Brian Cummings, the director of community development at the state's Department of Children and Families.
It turns out that some mothers have made safe-haven surrenders in the hospitals where they have just given birth. But the state requires a three-day waiting period to give a baby up for adoption. Since mothers can leave the hospital after two days and refuse further contact, they wouldn't be able to consent to an adoption. (The children could eventually be adopted, but only after a lengthier legal process.) Setting up a temporary placement program for the children of these women could help close that gap.
Publicity is also essential. Massachusetts has promoted both its safe-haven law and hotline (866-814-SAFE). But more work is needed, especially to reach teenagers. New Jersey spends some $530,000 a year promoting public awareness, including a "No shame. No blame. No names." campaign. But in a withering budget environment, Massachusetts will have to rely on community organizations and private companies to publicize the law.
Of course, some distressed parents need more than safe-haven laws. That's been the case in Nebraska, where some parents have recently surrendered children as old as 17 under that state's safe-haven law, which covers youngsters through age 18. Such families need extensive social services.Still, ending infant abandonment should be a priority. Massachusetts should follow New Jersey's lead, promoting the safe-haven law as a way to protect more infants.