When a baby is found discarded in a dumpster, the headline spreads like wildfire. The concept of tossing out a child—shocking, appalling, horrifying—challenges our most basic notions about parental bonds and unconditional love.
So when Indiana moved to become the first state to install "baby boxes" at hospitals, police stations, and fire stations as an "easy access" way for parents to legally and anonymously give up their infants, the story understandably sparked a national conversation around the issue.
The legislation seemed pretty straightforward: If the state could encourage desperate parents to safely leave their infant in a ventilated box instead of abandoning the child in an unattended location such as the woods, a drain, or worse—why not?
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But as Fusion discovered in what was supposed to be a relatively simple investigation into which states have the highest rates of infant discardment, nothing surrounding this issue is clear cut. Beginning with the definition of "discarded infant," which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines differently than "abandoned infant."
"Discarded infants" refer specifically to newborns who've been left in public places other than hospitals, without supervision and little chance of survival. We wanted to know: How often do parents really discard infants? How big of a problem is this in this country? Turns out, no one knows.
A nation of Safe Haven laws
In Indiana, infants can be relinquished anonymously and legally at hospitals and other designated locations within 45 days of birth, no questions asked, under the provision of the state’s Safe Haven law. Since 2008, all fifty states in the U.S. and Washington D.C. have maintained some variation of Safe Haven laws. The laws were put into place one-by-one starting in 1999 after a string of infanticides propelled activists to seek legislation that would decriminalize infant relinquishment under responsible circumstances, with the hope of saving the lives of innocent babies.
Safe Haven laws are almost universally popular—who is not in favor of saving innocent lives? But one glaring problem is that most states passed the laws with language outlining that they would have zero financial impact on taxpayers, said Tim Jaccard, founder of advocacy group AMT Children of Hope Foundation. In short, these laws were put into place without a budget to raise awareness around them.
So how would "baby boxes" factor in? Proponents argue that, with their bold lettering, the boxes are a relatively easy and inexpensive way to help to raise awareness about the laws. But opponents worry the boxes would prevent mothers from seeking important medical or emotional help because the exchange wouldn't involve a face-to-face interaction.
For now, the legislation has been kicked back to a committee for further research, the conversation tabled, as the measure proved too problematic. But the debate around awareness raises an important question: How effective are the laws, anyway? How many lives have they saved—or not?
The nation isn't keeping track
In fact, there is no national database tracking these numbers, and few states monitor them, so our ability to evaluate Safe Haven laws relies on a network of independently run organizations.
These groups, staffed by passionate activists–many of whom are volunteers with full-time jobs in other fields—have taken it upon themselves to act as liaisons between the often young and disadvantaged parents in need and the hospital workers, fire station employees, and police officers who are receiving the infants.
It’s also only through these organizations that any sort of dataset is kept. Dawn Geras, president of the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, is the woman many Safe Haven advocates depend on for national statistics, because Geras is one of the few who keep these records.
According to Geras, since the first Safe Haven law was passed in 1999, almost 3,000 babies have been legally relinquished. For advocates, that’s almost 3,000 lives saved. But as Geras told Fusion in an email, “getting accurate data from individual states on how many babies have been 'saved' since passing Baby Safe Haven laws is difficult at best.”
What about the number of infants found illegally discarded? Those numbers are even more complicated to find. Since there is no national dataset, we turn to Geras again. She suggested the number is about 1,400 since 1999, but reminded us that her methods aren't exactly scientific. “I try to 'capture' what I can from reports from the media,” she said, “but I know it can't be very accurate.”
Would a national database be the answer to figuring out whether Safe Haven laws are working–and provide evidence that more resources are needed to improve the safety of mothers and children?
The general reaction to this proposal is no. Here's why.
More government involvement may make the situation worse
When Fusion spoke to Safe Haven organizations across the country, we were surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for better records. Captain Tammy Henghold, a firefighter paramedic for Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue in Florida, has received two infants since the state passed its law in 2000. She thinks creating a national database would require asking more questions and ultimately scare parents away.
Nick Silverio, founder of the advocacy group A Safe Haven for Newborns, told Fusion that even though government intervention would be well-intentioned, it would create more red tape, making it harder for him to liaise between mothers in crisis and healthcare professionals.
Another argument takes this logic a step further. Laury Oaks, author of the forthcoming book Giving Up Baby: Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice, finds Safe Haven laws themselves problematic—she looks at them from what she calls a “reproductive rights” perspective. The problem, she told Fusion, is that they put the focus solely on the infant and disregard the wellness of the mother.
She thinks that while well-meaning, the laws reinforce the idea that some mothers are “bad” and should give up their children so that "good" parents can raise them. Instead of diverting money to maintaining a national database, Oaks argued that a better use of resources would be to invest in programs that lift up disadvantaged mothers. “Safe Haven laws are not the only thing we should be looking at,” she told Fusion. “I think our job as a society is to say, 'How can we make it so that women and men and extended families aren't so resource poor?'"
Starting a conversation
As Indiana’s "baby box" proposal lies in legislative purgatory, both proponents and opponents of the act, as well as those who are critical of Safe Haven laws altogether, are glad the issue has sparked a national conversation.
While keeping national, or even state, records seems to be unpopular among most involved, the one proponent Fusion found was Geras—the unofficial number cruncher of the country’s discarded infant problem. “What is needed is federal legislation mandating that someone start keeping record of this vital information in a national database," she told Fusion. But who, we wonder, is going to pay for that?
Cleo Stiller is a digital producer covering the intersections of sex, tech and culture. Words to live by: get your money's worth.