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Safe haven laws: Help for the desperate, defenseless

Post by Kim Bradford on June 16, 2011 at 7:15 pm with 1 Comment »
June 16, 2011 7:15 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

The stories – newborn babies left to die in bathrooms, thrown out with the trash or bludgeoned to death – are chilling.

Nothing is so vulnerable, so worthy of care as a child mere minutes, hours or days old. To hear of one meeting a lonely or violent end is heartrending.

It is also maddening. Not a state in this nation forces mothers to keep unwanted newborns.

Quite the contrary: All 50 states have adopted safe haven laws that permit mothers to drop off their newborns at emergency rooms, fire stations or other safe locations, no questions asked.

The case of a 20-year-old Tacoma woman who prosecutors allege took a shower while her newborn daughter drowned and froze to death in a toilet offers fresh reason to spread the word about the state’s safe haven law.

Called the Safety of Newborn Children Law, the 9-year-old statute has helped at least 15 newborns whose mothers could not or did not want to keep them.

We say “at least” because state data is incomplete. The law’s reach has probably been broader; Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital reports that it alone receives one safe-haven baby a year.

Particulars vary by state, but in Washington, mothers have 72 hours from an infant’s birth to leave the baby with an employee or volunteer at a hospital, federally designated rural health clinic or fire station.

Hospital emergency rooms, staffed 24 hours a day and equipped to care for newborns, are the safest choice.

Provided the child is unharmed, moms can remain anonymous and will be immune to prosecution. Mothers also need not fear condemnation; hospital staff are grateful when a parent chooses to make the best of a difficult situation.

No law can completely prevent child abuse, but it is a double tragedy when a newborn dies because desperate parents didn’t know their options.

After a New York mother was arrested last month for allegedly tossing her newborn down an eighth-floor garbage chute, lawmakers there proposed requiring schools to teach teens about the safe haven law.

Here in Washington, state legislators furthered the cause two years ago when they strengthened the safe haven law. Beginning July 1, safe haven locations will be required to post signs advertising their status.

Communities should take every possible opportunity to remind would-be parents that they have an alternative to abandoning their babies in unsafe places or worse.

The message is that safe haven laws don’t just save babies – they also save mothers and fathers from a possible lifetime of regret and imprisonment.

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