Missouri’s Safe Havens for Newborns Act was passed in 2003 and has given parents up to 5 days in a newborn’s life to drop that child off at a fire or police station or hospital, if they decide they can’t care for that child. A law signed by Governor Jay Nixon on July 9 will extend that period to 45 days of a newborn’s life.
The Safe Havens for Newborns Coalition in Kansas City is one of the groups that pushed for the extension. Coordinator Debbie Howland says five days just doesn’t give a parent enough time to come to such a drastic decision.
“In the first five days of life, quite often, a baby just eats and sleeps and is not too demanding and sometimes parents who are unable or unwilling to care for their child and raise their child, that decision is not able to be made in a thoughtful manner in the first five days.”
During debate of how long to extend the law, some lawmakers wondered why it should not be extended out to one year or even further, if the goal is to save the lives of children. Sponsor, Senator Ryan Silvey (R-Kansas City) admits it’s subjective.
“Maybe there will be some studies done as to what the optimal time is, but clearly at some point there has to be a cutoff. We have the foster care system and other things that potentially can kick in, and it’s not that you can’t relinquish your parental rights at some point down the road, it just becomes a different process.”
Howland’s group works to raise awareness in the Kansas City area about the existence of the Safe Haven law. She says some tragedies have still occurred since the law was passed in 2003 in cases where a mother didn’t know there was such a law.
In raising awareness, however, her group has learned that it isn’t just members of the public who don’t know about the law, but also many fire stations, police stations and hospitals as well.
“Some of these safe havens did not even realize they were safe havens, or if they did, only one or two people in the organization knew. Of course the way the law reads, as long as the child is handed to any staff member … that’s a legal relinquishment.”
Howland says the Mother & Child Health Coalition’s website has a great deal of information on the safe haven lawn, including sample policies that fire and police stations and hospitals can put in place to make sure that all staff are aware of the safe haven law and trained in how to respond if a parent brings a child in to be relinquished. She has also testified to lawmakers that safe havens should be required to have such a policy in place.
Senator Silvey says with the legislature having to cut programs from the budget, there hasn’t been money for a statewide awareness campaign, but until there is he hopes to find other ways to make sure such policies are enacted.
“My strategy will be to work with the state departments that work with this program and more informally inquire of them, ‘Hey, are you guys working with the local first responders and safe haven places to make sure they know what’s going on?'”
Since Missouri’s safe haven law was enacted in 2003, Howland says 36 children have been relinquished, and every one of them has been adopted.
The legislation expanding the Safe Havens for Newborns Act is SB 256.