Havens of safety for newborn infants

One of my favorite places in Washington D.C. is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and one of my favorite pieces of art in the Shrine is a sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington entitled "The Holy Family Resting--Flight into Egypt." In a bronze arrangement that can be searched, found and viewed online, the artist depicts Joseph, Mary and Jesus -- and the burro -- as sleeping mid-journey on the roadside. The two adults and the animal are clearly exhausted, while the infant nestles with eyes closed, content and secure, in the arms of his mother.

The Christmas story is filled with majesty, wonder and awe, but not entirely so. The miraculous elements -- the winged herald's astounding question, the mysterious star, the angelic chorale -- stand amidst the shadows of disruption, agony and fright. An embarrassing pregnancy, the rejected pleas for shelter, a birthing on cold stone and itching straw, a nightmare's warning of murder -- these are the darker elements of the tale, to which is joined a family's forced migration to a strange and distant culture to secure safe haven for their newborn.

This mix of the harrowing and the heroic is found also in the birth and survival of young Moses, whose mother arranged a different flight, this one accomplished by a covered basket floated down the Nile, to preserve by calculated abandonment another marked child's life.

Society's tradition of calling an infant "baby Moses," when such is found on the doorsteps of individuals or institutions reasonably expected to take them in, pays tribute to the Old Testament account and indirectly references the New Testament's Christmas account.

In 1999, the Texas legislature was the first to pass a "baby Moses" law, signed by then-Governor George W. Bush. The law exempted desperate mothers seeking to abandon their newborns from penalties for neglect if they left their infants with approved "safe havens." In the extraordinarily short span of 11 years, all 50 states have adopted what are more commonly now called "baby safe haven" laws.

The baby safe haven law in Massachusetts, enacted in 2004, mirrors the provisions in other states. It designates hospitals, police departments, and manned fire stations as safe havens and authorizes officials to receive newborns from either parent up to seven days after birth. Those taking in abandoned infants must make every effort to determine the name of the infant and his or her parents, any medical history, and any other information bearing on the child's best interests. However, while parents are encouraged to offer such details, the law states that they are free to remain anonymous by not supplying any of the background requested.

Infants left in safe havens become wards of the state and eligible for adoption. The parents' rights are not automatically terminated but in the custody and adoption proceedings that follow their interests are presumed to be voluntarily waived.

In 2001, Maria Parker of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference testified in committee in favor of the safe haven approach on behalf of the Catholic Bishops in the Commonwealth. She told the committee that the legislation was not "the final and comprehensive answer to the social problems that tempt parents to abandon their young." "Nevertheless," she continued, baby safe havens "provide a compassionate opportunity for saving the lives of children abandoned by parents who often are young, desperate, and unknowledgeable about financial and other supportive resources." She concluded by saying that "If the provision of safe havens rescues the life of even one child, the effort will be entirely worthwhile and certainly worth the support of this Committee and the Legislature."

Fifteen infants have been surrendered in Massachusetts under the baby safe haven law. The most recent occurrence was in the fall of 2010, following on the heels of reports of a woman in East Boston who threw her newborn out of a second story window into a trash strewn alley. The mother who gave her child to a hospital did so after learning about the safe haven law in news stories covering the East Boston case.

According to Michael Morrissey, who with his wife Jean initiated efforts in Massachusetts to pass the baby safe haven law, in the four years before the Massachusetts law went into effect, 13 babies were unsafely abandoned and six of those children died.

Yet, while the law has had a positive effect, there is need for more publicity. Also, Morrissey has secured the promises of several legislators to sponsor legislation in the upcoming 2010-2011 term to expand the sites that could be used as baby safe havens and to include 911 responders as approved recipients.

The Morrisseys believe that the best form of publicity is peer-to-peer, where young persons spread the word to their friends and classmates about the safe haven option. They formed Baby Safe Haven New England to promote the law (www.babysafehavennewengland.com). The Massachusetts Catholic Conference is also encouraging the dissemination of notices, available in English, Spanish and Portuguese on its website at www.macathconf.org/babysafehavenupdate.htm. The notices include confidential hotline numbers for Massachusetts (1-866-814-7233) and nationally (1-888-510-2229).

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director of Policy and Research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.