In the last two months, the National Safe Haven Alliance’s hotline has seen an almost 10 percent increase in phone calls, many from moms asking what to do with babies they say they can’t care for. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the personal and financial strain on new parents, while the number of infant abandonments in the United States has increased slightly.
“We are generally concerned that, with the pandemic going on, moms that were under normal stress … are going to be under increased stress and pressure, which may precipitate even more illegal abandonments during this period of crisis,” said Dawn Geras, president of the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation.
Safe haven laws in all 50 states allow parents to anonymously surrender their newborns without facing legal repercussions if they bring the babies to a hospital or another designated drop-off point. Safe haven advocates have started helping mothers in new ways during the COVID-19 outbreak, but they have to fight against a lack of public awareness about the laws and related programs.
The Safe Haven Baby Boxes organization based in Indiana tracks illegal abandonments in the news. It said communities nationwide found seven abandoned babies in March—up from five in February and two in January. In April, they tracked four abandonments. On Tuesday, an employee at a waste facility in California found a dead baby girl on the facility’s conveyor belt.
Most women who call the National Safe Haven Alliance hotline don’t know they are pregnant until right before the birth, according to executive director Heather Burner. Some women call while they’re in labor. Others call right after giving birth in the toilet or on the bathroom floor.
“The concerns from the mothers haven’t changed [since the pandemic began],” Burner said. “They are looking for help to create a safe plan.”
Occasionally, though, the hotline will receive a call from a mother who wants to surrender her baby but is concerned about how the pandemic is affecting the safe haven laws.
“They’re afraid,” Burner said, adding that callers aren’t sure whether it is OK for them to go to safe havens at a local hospital or the neighborhood fire station. One mother was so unsure about going to the hospital that the hotline staff contacted a nearby fire department for her. Officials arrived with an ambulance to pick up the baby at her home.
The Safe Haven Baby Boxes organization has already seen new needs among the mothers it helps.
“We’ve gotten diapers for women before who couldn’t afford them,” said founder and CEO Monica Kelsey. “We’ve taken groceries to women before, and, just recently, of course, helping them pay their rent, which is something we don’t normally do.”
The group is helping one woman with her rent who already surrendered her baby but has other children at home. Another woman is weeks away from delivering a baby, and the organization is helping her look into an open adoption.
“Whenever we hear those words, ‘I wish I could keep my baby,’ ‘I love my baby but I can’t do this,’ we want to make sure we can offer all of the support that we can,” Burner said. “About 60 percent of our calls that initiate as a safe haven call will choose an adoption plan once they’re able to speak with someone at an adoption agency.”
One of the biggest obstacles these organizations face is struggling parents not knowing safe haven laws exist. Kelsey mentioned one mother recently in the news who left her baby on a front porch in an Omaha, Neb., neighborhood. If she had known about safe haven laws, the woman could have legally surrendered her child at a designated drop-off location. But, instead, she now faces charges for child abandonment and neglect.
Kelsey said adoption is always a better alternative to any type of abandonment, but safe haven laws at least help prevent mothers from leaving their children somewhere to die: “If you don’t have this alternative, you’re going to continue finding babies in dumpsters.”