On 2 May 2016, a news article about the installation of several baby drop off boxes at Indiana firehouses began circulating on Facebook:
The Associated Press reported that all 50 states (including Indiana) long ago since adopted some form of "safe-haven" laws, which allow parents to legally and anonymously surrender an infant at designated locations, such as a fire station. The installation of the boxes was a step toward making use of such laws easier on parties involved:
A Safe Haven Baby Box where mothers can drop off unwanted newborns anonymously with emergency help moments away is now available in northeastern Indiana.
The padded, climate-controlled container was dedicated Tuesday at the Woodburn Volunteer Fire Department about 15 miles east of Fort Wayne near the Ohio state line. It’s on an exterior wall of the fire station.
The Knights of Columbus of Indiana will pay for the first 100 baby boxes, which cost $1,500 to $2,000 each, said Monica Kelsey, a volunteer with the fire department who has been advocating for baby boxes in Indiana for several years ... The boxes are equipped with a security system that notifies emergency personnel when a baby is dropped off. Emergency responders can get to the child within minutes.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have safe haven laws, which allow unharmed newborns to be surrendered without fear of prosecution. Indiana’s law allows mothers to drop off newborns at police stations, fire stations and hospitals.
In an era when preposterous claims constantly circulate on social media, many people who may be unfamiliar with safe-haven laws may be skeptical that they exist. However, as the article stated, under such laws the parent of a newborn can anonymously place the infant in the padded, climate controlled box. Closing the door then locks the apparatus and alerts firefighters to the presence of a surrendered infant.
The "safe-haven laws" (also called "Baby Moses laws") from which the baby drop-off boxes stemmed are not a new legal development. Texas was the first state to enact such a policy in 1999, after a string of fatal infant abandonments. At that time, law enforcement agents struggled to address a persistent and troubling spate of newborn deaths after such abandonments:
It sounds bizarre and horrific: An educated, middle-class young woman denies her pregnancy, covertly delivers without medical help, then disposes of the baby.
Experts say such behavior is so rare that it simply has not been formally studied.
But the discoveries of three abandoned dead babies over the last seven months suggests the phenomenon may not be so rare - and that it cries for more scrutiny. In the latest case, an 18-year-old from Ocean County, N.J., allegedly gave birth on Friday during her high school prom, then put the baby in the trash. In many ways, the case echoes that of Melissa Seaner, 17, of Bucks County, charged with concealing the death of her baby over Memorial Day weekend, and Amy Grossberg, 18, of Wyckoff, N.J., charged with murdering her newborn in November.
How could a young woman who presumably has the knowledge and resources to explore abortion or adoption wind up throwing away an infant?
Experts - discussing the phenomenon in general, not the three recent cases - say they can only speculate, because no one really knows. More than 1,000 children die of abuse and neglect each year, according to the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse in Chicago; experts guess that about a quarter of these children die on the day they are born. But typically, women who abandon or dispose of their babies have few resources.
"It is not unusual for a young, deprived, frightened girl to deny her pregnancy until the baby is born," said Billie F. Corder, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. "But it does not happen that often" among young women with greater means.
Growing concern over the unknown numbers of mothers who abandoned their newborns led to formal research by the state of Nevada in 2000 [PDF]. That report cited increased media attention as a factor in the development of what would become nationwide safe-haven laws:
Over the past few years, the news media has reported on an increasing number of newborn infants who have been abandoned within hours of birth. Many of these children are found in disturbing places, such as garbage dumpsters and public toilets. Often, these infants have died before they are located. For example, three men fishing in the Mississippi River found one newborn in Minnesota. The baby girl, whose umbilical cord was still attached, was found floating in icy waters.
Even the State of Nevada is not exempt from these horrific news stories. In Humboldt County, two teenagers were prosecuted for running over their newborn infant with a pickup truck and burying the child near an Interstate 80 billboard sign. Although individual cases of abandoned infants receive frequent media attention, there are no solid statistics measuring the extent of infant abandonment. An informal search of newspaper articles on this issue was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
The DHHS search found reports of 105 infants abandoned in public places in 1998; 33 of those infants were found dead. In 1991, there were 65 reported cases of abandoned infants and eight deaths. It is important to remember that figures were not collected for the years between 1991 and 1998, and this “increase” cannot be interpreted as a trend. Instead, it may simply reflect heightened media interest in the issue. Very little information exists on the individuals who abandon newborn children. Research on neonaticide (the killing of a newborn on the day of its birth), as well as media reports of public abandonment, indicate that individuals who abandon newborns or commit acts of neonaticide are predominately very young, unmarried, physically healthy young women.
By 2000, states that had adopted similar measures generally stipulated an age range (between three and thirty days after birth) and specific circumstances under which infants could be anonymously surrendered. By 2013, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services reported [PDF] that laws were adopted across all 50 states, although the eligibility involved parties varied by region:
To date, all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have enacted safe haven legislation. The focus of these laws is protecting newborns. In approximately 12 States and Puerto Rico, infants who are 72 hours old or younger may be relinquished to a designated safe haven.
Approximately 19 States accept infants up to 1 month old. Other States specify varying age limits in their statutes.
In most States with safe haven laws, either parent may surrender his or her baby to a safe haven. In four States and Puerto Rico, only the mother may relinquish her infant. Idaho specifies that only a custodial parent may surrender an infant. In the District of Columbia, an infant may be relinquished only by a custodial parent who is a resident of the District. In approximately 11 States, an agent of the parent (someone who has the parent’s approval) may take a baby to a safe haven for a parent.
In California, Kansas, and New York, if the person relinquishing the infant is someone other than a parent, he or she must have legal custody of the child. Eight States do not specify the person who may relinquish an infant.
Early data on the success of such laws was promising. New York adopted its "Abandoned Infant Protection Act" in 2000, and public promotion of the program was credited with saving multiple babies' lives across several states later that year:
... anecdotal evidence suggests that where safe haven laws are heavily publicized, they are working the way their proponents said they would: Women are coming forward and bringing in their newborns.
In Texas, for example, the law languished for almost a year until state Land Commissioner David Dewhurst spent more than $200,000 of his own money for public service announcements, informational kiosks at shopping malls and bus stop ads. In the last two months, two women have brought newborns to Texas hospitals.
And in New York, which enacted a safe haven law in July, two babies have been turned in, including one recently on Long Island, which an organization has blanketed with posters urging pregnant women to call its crisis hotline instead of abandoning their newborns.
Two weeks after New Jersey enacted its Safe Haven Infant Protection Act, a 4-day-old baby was turned in. In Alabama the tally is six, most of them in Mobile, which has had a highly publicized program since 1998.
"Legislation is one thing, but implementation is a completely different animal," said Jodi Brooks, the Mobile reporter who started A Secret Safe Place for Newborns. "Anyone can pass a law. But until you tell people about the program, it's nothing."
Other jurisdictions have started imitating Mobile's formula of taking out ads, distributing thousands of brochures at schools and clinics, and training hospital staff how to handle abandoned newborns.
No one can say if infant abandonment is increasing or if the incidents are just receiving more publicity. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 105 infants abandoned in "public places" in 1998, including 33 who were dead. In 1991, the only other recent year for which figures were compiled, 65 infants were found abandoned in public places, eight of them dead.
A skeptical 2007 New York Times article said data on how effective the laws might actually be was weak, but one advocate said that hundreds of babies were legally surrendered nationwide after the laws became commonplace:
But proponents say that if even one baby is saved, the laws have served their purpose. Dawn Geras, president of the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation of Illinois, said the number of babies illegally abandoned and found dead has been decreasing in tandem with increased awareness of safe-haven laws.
“I think it does work when people know about it,” Ms. Geras said. She said 889 babies had been safely relinquished nationwide, according to her records, since the first safe-haven law was enacted in Texas in 1999.
By 2013, that number had climbed significantly:
Since 1999, 2,138 children have been relinquished nationwide under the Baby Safe Haven laws.
Florida accounts for nearly 10 percent of that total, with 202 children left at safe havens around the state since 2000. Illinois has had 86 children left at safe havens since 2001.
In the 12 years Arizona's law has been in effect, 24 children have been left at safe havens.
However, well more than a decade after the laws began going into effect, supporters said lack of knowledge about the programs made them less effective:
[A] 16-year-old Mesa mother was arrested on suspicion of attempted second-degree murder and child abuse. She could face at least seven years in prison if prosecutors decide to charge her as an adult. It is not known whether the girl was aware of Arizona's Baby Safe Haven law.
But if she attended a school in the Mesa Public Schools district, or just about any school in the Phoenix area, chances are slim that she ever received any information about the law in a classroom or nurse's office. Mesa schools, like most others, are silent on the issue.
"We don't have anything at all in place for communicating or not communicating about them," said Helen Hollands, a district spokeswoman. "There's nothing there."
And the entire situation — a pregnant teen living seven doors down from a fire station, less than a mile from a hospital, and in a school district and state that are predominantly silent about a law that could have ensured a healthy beginning for her baby and saved the girl from a potential prison sentence — exemplifies the struggles in raising awareness about the 12-year-old law, said Heather Burner, head of the Arizona Safe Baby Haven Foundation.
Indiana's baby drop off boxes are real. The apparatuses are part of long-running efforts to curb baby abandonment deaths as part of what are known as "safe-haven laws." And while the programs were adopted as early as 1999 in some states, the number of questions we've received about baby drop off boxes indicates how little known the programs remain years after the first law was passed.