Flap over laws to save abandoned babies

States let mothers drop infants at 'safe havens.' Critics say it worsens the problem.

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Debi Faris recently made the sad drive - again - from her home in Yucaipa, Calif., to the Los Angeles County coroner's office to retrieve the body of a baby boy who had been left by a dumpster.

Ms. Faris, her husband, Mark, and others laid Baby Jacob (named by the police officer who found the child) to rest last Saturday in the Garden of Angels, a small portion of a local cemetery the Farises established for abandoned infants in 1996.

With the help of donations, they bought 44 plots four years ago. Baby Jacob was the 45th abandoned child buried there, forcing them to look for new space amid the tombstones. "I never thought in our lifetimes we'd use them all," laments Faris.

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The almost inexplicable rise in baby abandonment is prompting state legislatures across the US to adopt immunity laws for mothers who opt to leave their newborns at "safe havens" - typically a hospital or fire station - instead of dumping them in the streets.

The initiatives are sparking a growing controversy, however, over whether they do more harm than good. While everyone agrees the laws are well-intentioned, critics argue that offering safe havens only encourages abandonment.

So far, four states have passed baby-abandonment bills this year, and 18 more have introduced such legislation. They'd join the fifteen others that have adopted the policy since 1999.

The laws vary, but most provide immunity from prosecution if the mother declares she is leaving a baby at a safe haven under the terms of the statute, and does so within a specified time period - which ranges, across states, from 72 hours to 30 days. Virtually all the bills waive immunity if the child shows signs of abuse.

"These laws are proliferating very quickly," says Lupe Hittle of the Child Welfare League of America, based in Washington. "But this year there are more questions being asked about what are the implications of these laws."

Critics argue the legislation is largely a feel-good vote for politicians that ignores the root causes of the problem. They also contend such laws undercut decades of progress, both socially and legally, in the area of child "identity rights" - that is, the right of any child to know who he is and where he came from. There is also concern about children lacking a family health history and fathers' rights being ignored.

Others worry that the kind of mother who would abandon her baby - often impoverished, homeless, abused, mentally ill, or drug addicted - is unlikely to know of the new law, thus requiring a costly campaign to get the word out. One Colorado lawmaker has said she won't see taxpayer money spent to "teach women how to abandon their babies."

Still others say the laws risk making abandonment a civil right. Once such laws are passed, they suggest, they open the door to legalized abandonment on any grounds, such as deformity or gender, and perhaps not just a month after birth. One critic has likened the laws to a three-day automobile warranty, giving a mom the right to turn her baby back in if she doesn't like it.

A few people have suggested alternatives to abandoned-baby laws. Debbe Magnusen expanded Project Cuddle - a program to help children taken into protective custody - by establishing the Baby Rescue Program five years ago. It operates a crisis hotline for pregnant women thinking of abandoning their children.

Her first call was from a woman who had been raped, said she didn't want the baby, and was planning to leave it in a park. Four days later, Ms. Magnusen was present when the baby was born in a hospital and later turned over to adoptive parents. She says 317 babies have been saved since she started the program, most of whom, she thinks, were destined to be abandoned.

"[Some girls] will choose that route," she says of baby-abandonment laws, "but we try to save the girl, not just the baby, and help them become accountable.... I don't see why those laws and what we're doing can't co-exist."

Judging the effectiveness of these laws, given how recently they were passed, is problematic. The first abandoned-baby law went into effect in Texas in September 1999, after a spate of 13 abandonments in the Houston area over 10 months.

In the 12 months prior to the law taking effect, 33 babies were abandoned in Texas, most at hospitals, while 14 were left in what were deemed to be dangerous situations, says Marla Sheely, a spokeswomen for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Service. In the following year, she says the latter number remained about the same, but cites five cases in which women bore children elsewhere and then dropped them off at a hospital or firehouse. Three of those women said they had been prompted to do so by the new law.

In California, three women have left their babies in safe havens since an abandonment law went into effect Jan. 1. It's unknown whether the mothers would have otherwise left their babies in a dangerous place, but the fact the babies are alive is all the evidence Ms. Faris needs.

"Do we let babies continue to be thrown in dumpsters because we're worried about not having a medical background on them?" she asks. "The value of a baby's life and the blessings they bring are so much greater than the concerns that have arisen over these laws."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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