A safe haven for whom?

editorial notebook

November 22, 2008|By Ann LoLordo

Nebraska was among the last states to pass a law letting parents abandon their children without the threat of criminal prosecution. And once the state did, children began appearing at local hospitals. But they weren't infants. And they weren't toddlers. Most of the 35 children left by their parents were 11 or older. It was an astonishing outcome of a well-meaning law and a disturbing sign of families in distress.

From reports of the fallout of Nebraska's

safe haven law, which took effect in September, many of the abandoned children had special needs. The Los Angeles Times told the story of a 5-year-old boy with several mental health problems whose adoptive mother flew from Washington state to Nebraska and gave him up in the hopes of getting him the treatment she couldn't provide for him.

Nebraska has yet to address that consequence of the safe-haven controversy, even as state legislators moved last week to change the law so that only infants 30 days old or less can be left in the custody of the state; it had been children up to age 18.

In Maryland a few years back, parents of similarly needy children were relinquishing custody of their youngsters to the state in the same desperate bid to get them mental health treatment. Child-welfare advocates began documenting the problem and pushed to have the law changed so that such troubled youngsters could receive state-funded care without their parents being forced to give up their rights. It was a responsible, humane change in the law that has helped families that either lacked health insurance or couldn't afford the cost of such care.

But that situation hasn't occurred under Maryland's safe-haven law, which allows parents to anonymously abandon infants up to 10 days old to a safe person at a police or fire station or hospital without legal consequences. The 2002 law was an attempt to prevent the dumping of newborn babies in trash bins. It's an imperfect law; children are still being left in dumpsters - and some tragically. Baltimore police last month found a dead baby boy in a trash bin behind a Charles Village church, and Prince George's County homicide detectives have buried three such infants since 2004.

Those babies who are left at hospitals or social service agencies often arrive without any information about their medical situation or family history that could prove critical later in life. University of Maryland Hospital has specially trained social workers available 24 hours to handle such cases. Only one baby has been left there and was later put up for adoption. The Frederick County Department of Social Services took custody of two abandoned infants in recent years, but no one can say how many babies have been abandoned under Maryland's safe haven law because no statistics are kept. That's a failing that should be rectified. Without adequate data, state officials can't possibly know how well the law is working.

Debbie Ramelmeier, director of child welfare practice and policy at the Department of Human Resources, believes Maryland may not have had many abandoned children because of the wide range of adoption services available here.

But that's not an issue that should be open to speculation. Documenting these cases would better prove her point, or be a first step toward solving any issues that may remain.

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