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Troy L. Wheeler

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Strategy: Establishing Safe Drop-off Points for Abandoned Newborns

STRATEGY Provide a safe place for a mother in crisis to surrender her unharmed newborn without fear of prosecution . . .

Strategy

Provide a safe place for a mother in crisis to surrender her unharmed newborn without fear of prosecution and in complete confidence.

Community Problem Addressed

Many confused, often young mothers find themselves at a crisis point after giving birth to an unplanned baby.  In some cases women are so concerned about hiding the evidence of an unwanted pregnancy that they kill or abandon their babies out of fear and desperation. Many have become pregnant through rape or incest and have been too ashamed or confused to seek help. A survey of newspaper reports conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1998 found that 105 babies were abandoned in public places, 33 of which were found dead. This number underestimates the incidence of American infanticide because it only counts those deaths that were covered by the media.

Key Components

Mobile County, Alabama, had an alarming number of infant abandonment-related deaths in the early nineties. A local television reporter--horrified at having to cover grisly stories about babies dying in dumpsters or drowned in a toilet by a mother and grandmother--approached the county District Attorney with an idea to stop the abandonment and death of newborns. Frightened, misinformed women needed a safe, legal alternative to infant abandonment. A Secret Safe Place for Newborns was born when the Mobile County District Attorney's Office partnered with a local television station, the Department of Human Resources, area hospitals, and law enforcement agencies to provide a safe, confidential alternative for women to leave their unwanted or unplanned newborns with a staff member in a hospital emergency room, no questions asked. The program is safe for babies and safe for mothers.

The mother simply brings her unharmed newborn baby into a designated emergency room stating that she wants to make use of the Secret Safe Place Program. Medical services are offered to the mother, but she is under no obligation to accept them and is free to leave without providing her name. The baby is given a physical check-up and is provided with any medical care or medication it may need. Hospital staff immediately informs the District Attorney's Office and the Department of Human Resources. A newborn must be brought unharmed to a Secret Safe Place For Newborns drop-off site soon after birth for mothers to utilize the service anonymously (within 72 hours in Mobile County). The period of time varies from state to state.

To aid other District Attorneys across the United States in developing their own Secret Safe Place for Newborns program, the Mobile County District Attorney's Office developed a replication manual and posted it on their Web site for free download.

Key Partnerships

Program advocates work with legislators to ensure that the proper laws and procedures are in place so that a mother in crisis may surrender her unharmed newborn to a hospital emergency room without fear of prosecution, and in complete confidence.

The Mobile County District Attorney's Office is working with the National District Attorneys Association, the Alabama District Attorneys Association, Alabama adoption agencies, and state offices of the Alabama Department of Human Resources to expand the program statewide and nationwide.

Area hospitals must be complete partners in the project because they play a central role in ensuring the safety of the child.  They must know how to react quickly when a baby is dropped off at their facility.

Potential Obstacles

It is very difficult to reach the mothers who need the program the most. Many are very young, living in isolated communities, and are often pregnant as the result of sexual abuse or assault. Lack of access to transportation is a barrier to use of the Secret Safe Place. Lack of public awareness of the program may cause mothers in crisis to be unaware of their options.  Fathers' rights advocates may question the mother's right to surrender parental rights for both parents. District attorneys may be uncomfortable with the confidentiality provisions. States that have broadened the drop-off point to include fire stations and small clinics must invest time in fully training staff at those sites to handle a potential infant abandonment.

Signs of Success

The Secret Safe Place for Newborns concept has caught fire nationally; 40 states have passed similar legislation since the program was founded. The current version of the national "Safe and Stable Families Act," signed into law by President Bush early in 2002, calls for federal funding to establish and expand similar infant safe haven programs nationwide. A Secret Safe Place for Newborns has won both national and state recognition awards as a government innovation that saves lives and prevents violent domestic crime. Nine babies have been saved through the program in Mobile County alone since 1999.

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