CATES: Baby Safe Haven

By Carol A. Cates, MSN, MBA, RN

Chief Nursing Officer

Odessa Regional Medical Center

You may have seen on the news where a Lovington woman is currently on trial for leaving her newborn in a dumpster. As that trial has unfolded, the woman accused of the crime has claimed she was unaware of Safe Haven rules that exist in every state.

Several of our local news broadcasts have talked about Safe Haven in the last week, and I so appreciate the efforts to make sure that no one else makes the same poor decision that the young woman on trial is being accused of making. Today, I wanted to help in that quest to get the word out there about Safe Haven laws here in Texas.

The Safe Haven Laws, also known as Baby Moses Laws started in Texas. There was a string of several baby abandonments in Houston that lead to the law being established here in 1999. Every state in the nation and Puerto Rico have followed Texas’ lead, making it possible for overwhelmed parents to surrender a newborn without penalty and in anonymity under certain conditions. Those laws are designed to keep infant deaths due to abandonment from happening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 4,100 infants have been surrendered nationwide since Texas first put the law into place. Unfortunately, statistically, its hard to determine directly if the laws are making a difference, but, infant homicide has decreased since the Safe Haven laws have gone into effect.

Part of the reason it’s hard to say that Safe Haven is the reason is because the laws differ state-to-state, especially when it comes to the age of the infant. In 11 states and Puerto Rico, the infant cannot be more than 3 days old, in North Dakota, they have the largest window at 1 year. 19 states are at under 1 month of age, Texas is under 60 days old, and New Mexico, where the abandoned infant I discussed later was found is 90 days or younger.

Between 1989 and 1998, before Safe Haven laws existed, the national homicide rate for infants was 8.3 per 100,000 person-years. Even scarier, the homicide rate on the first day of life for infants at that time was 222.2 per 100,000 person-years. That works out to the first day of life between 1989 and 1998 had a 10 times greater homicide rate than any other age group. 2008 was the year when all 50 states and Puerto Rico had Safe Haven laws on the books. From 2008 to 2017, the statistics did improve, down to 7.2 per 100,000 person-years for infants and down to 74.0 per 100,000 person-years on the first day of life, a 66.7% improvement for first day. However, that first day statistic for homicide is still 5.4 times higher than for any other time in life.

Infant homicide is the 13th leading cause of death for infants, and infant homicides on the first day of life are mostly committed by the mother. Those homicides are often linked with young age, unmarried status, lower educational attainment, non-hospital births, and most commonly an attempt to conceal an unwanted pregnancy.

After the first day of life infant homicides are most often associated with young parental age, caregiver frustration, maternal mental illness (for example post-partum depression), removal of an unwanted child, abuse, or neglect, and are most often committed by a biological parent or a male companion of the mother.

In Texas, the rules of Safe Haven are straightforward. The law is administered by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). A parent may take an infant under 60 days of age, who is unharmed and safe to any hospital, fire station, or emergency medical services (EMS) station in Texas.

The person bringing the baby must give the baby to an employee and tell the person you want to leave your baby at a Safe Haven. The staff at that location will ask for any medical history of the baby or in the family, but providing that information is not required. You will not be asked for any personal information, and you will not be prosecuted for abandonment or neglect if the baby is unharmed when you leave it at a Safe Haven location. Surrendered babies are medically screened and DFPS takes custody of that infant to determine long-term solutions for a good home for that infant. All parental rights are severed when that baby is surrendered.

After an infant is 60 days of age, Safe Haven is no longer an option for a struggling parent, but there are still options available that do not involve hurting, killing, or abandoning a child.

Here in the Permian Basin there are several options of places to go to get help. A good place to start is by dialing 211 from any phone. They can help direct you to a multitude of community organizations designed to help families in crisis.

The Crisis Center of West Texas is another place whose mission is to support families in crisis, they are available 24/7, you can find their contact information online or through 211. You can also call Odessa Links or United Way of Odessa. They can help connect you with services to help you and your family get help when it feels like there are no good options.

You can also speak to your primary medical provider, pediatrician, or go to the emergency room.

Please reach out when you are struggling, because harming a child is not a choice anyone needs to make.