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Rethinking 'safe havens' for legal desertion of babies

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The best social policies result from solid research, thoughtful planning, and careful implementation. Unfortunately, these basic standards haven't been applied by the 44 states that have now passed laws to address the disconcerting, very real problem of infants being abandoned in dumpsters, bathrooms, and other dangerous places.

Instead, with too little information about the causes of the phenomenon or the potential effectiveness of the response, lawmakers nationwide have created so-called "safe havens" - usually hospitals, police stations, and firehouses - where new mothers can legally desert their babies, anonymously and without the risk of prosecution.

These well-intentioned laws have spread so rapidly (all in the past three years) because they promise an intuitively appealing, easy fix. But complex social problems are rarely resolved through simple, feel-good solutions. So it should come as no surprise that an extensive new study by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York not only concludes that there is no evidence the safe haven statutes are working, but also finds that they are causing serious unintended consequences.

First, why the laws aren't working: In a nutshell, a mother who is so distraught or so in denial that she would stuff her newborn into a trash can is not likely, instead, to ask her boyfriend for a ride to the police station. The study found that to be the major reason unsafe abandonments are continuing unabated, even in states that advertise their "safe havens" on highway billboards and in public-service TV commercials.

Women in distress need counseling and support, not to mention pre- and postnatal medical assistance. But these laws don't even pretend to offer resources to help mothers deliver healthy babies or to resolve the traumas that lead them to jeopardize their newborns' lives.

This don't ask, don't tell approach does, however, open a Pandora's box.

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