Eight years after law is passed, experts can't agree whether it saves unwanted babies
Safe haven or easy way to ditch kid?
By Rick Armon
May 4, 2009 / Ohio.com
Tyler Svenson cracked a slight smile at the end of Happy Birthday.
The 1-year-old, dressed in overalls, had sat through the song in the kitchen with a stoic look on his face, not knowing quite what to make of all the attention showered his way.
That scene a few weeks ago — of Tyler surrounded by doting family members and multicolored balloons — was quite different from a year ago.
Back then, Tyler was known as ''Baby Boy Doe,'' a child abandoned at Cuyahoga Falls General Hospital under Ohio's safe haven law.
His biological mother had given birth there and decided she didn't want him. She walked away, never even holding the infant.
''Your human reaction, your initial reaction is, 'How can you give up a child?' '' said David Svenson, who along with his wife, Melinda, adopted Tyler in December. ''But then when you really think about it, she loved him enough to do the right thing.''
''Or she knew herself enough to know that he would be better off elsewhere,'' Melinda Svenson said while playing with Tyler in the living room of their Wadsworth home.
Since Ohio enacted its safe haven law eight years ago, 63 infants statewide have been surrendered — the majority in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Summit and Lucas counties.
Last year, there were five in Cuyahoga, two in Franklin, one (Tyler) in Summit and one in Van Wert. (The state couldn't provide a breakdown of all 63 children by county.)
The law allows parents to abandon babies at hospitals, fire departments or police stations anonymously and face no prosecution as long as the infant is unharmed. Parents are not required to provide any personal information but are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their medical history.
State lawmakers approved the measure to combat horror stories about abandoned newborns, including the high-profile case of a college student in Columbus who dumped her child in a trash bin in the mid-1990s.
This year, Ohio expanded the law, extending the time frame that parents could give up a baby from 72 hours to 30 days.
The state doesn't track what happens to the babies after they are surrendered and hasn't studied the effectiveness of the law, but many child-welfare advocates consider it successful.
''It works. It really works. We wouldn't have 63 people walking around without it,'' said John Saros, executive director of Summit County Children Services.
But the law — all 50 states now have some form of safe haven or ''Baby Moses'' protection — also has critics, who argue that there's no proof any lives have been saved, adoptive parents are denied important medical histories and fathers' rights can be ignored.
Since there's no research proving the law's effectiveness, proponents rely on rhetoric by claiming that if it saves one life, it's worth it, critics said.
''The most dangerous thing about these laws is they make people think that we solved the problem,'' said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in Boston. ''We have to stop engaging in cliches and start engaging in public policy that saves way more than one life.''
Even proponents admit the process is flawed, but not enough to scrap the law.
''The major criticism is it deprives adoptive parents of genetic information and deprives the father of any say-so in what happens,'' said Phillip J. Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University who has studied newborn homicides. ''Nonetheless, if it saves lives, it outweighs those disadvantages.''
For the Svensons, the safe haven law has been a success.
A year ago, Dave Svenson, 41, who works in the medical industry, was at work when he got a phone call at 1 p.m. on a Friday.
Summit County Children Services had a safe haven baby who needed a foster home. The Svensons, who had gone through training with the agency and were hoping to adopt a child, knew that Children Services had never returned a safe haven child to the biological mother.
They were both excited and nervous as they traveled to Children Services headquarters in Akron that night, knowing that when they picked up the baby, he probably would become their son.
What they found was a small, fragile and quiet infant. So much so, they became even more nervous.
''One of the things with the safe haven law is it's very confidential,'' said Melinda Svenson, 35, a stay-at-home mom. ''Luckily in his situation, the mother was willing to disclose a lot of her history and background, which was very nice and very helpful.
''But there are still a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to the medical history.''
The biological mother remains a mystery.
''The only thing we really know is that she told the social worker at the hospital that she never wanted kids,'' Melinda Svenson said.
As for Tyler, he is now much more vocal and, as his father says, is ''all boy.''
The Svensons are advocates for the safe haven law and try to educate others who learn of Tyler's background.
''A lot of people aren't familiar with it,'' David Svenson said.
They also said they are not concerned if Tyler's biological mother wants to reconnect with him at some point.
Melinda Svenson said it's important to publicize the law to prevent tragedies involving abandoned newborns.
''It's better than getting left in a Dumpster,'' she said.
Safe haven laws have created ''baby dumps'' — a convenient way for mothers to abandon their children, said Marley Greiner, co-founder of the group Bastard Nation in Columbus.
She is especially perturbed that the state extended the timeline to abandon a child to 30 days.
''It's just morally and ethically wrong,'' Greiner said. ''It's a test drive. It gives you time to see if you really want to keep your baby. . . . What type of society says you can have 30 days to decide if you want your kid or not?''
The law wasn't created to allow women to give birth at hospitals and then walk away, she said.
The original intent of the law was to save babies from being abandoned in unsafe places or killed. That goal isn't being fully met.
Over the past few months, there have been many news reports nationwide about babies being dumped in unsafe locations.
In December, a baby was left in an overnight bag on a street corner in Bessemer, Ala. A teenage mother was arrested in January and accused of leaving her newborn in a shoe box on the porch of a home in Lawrence, Ind.
In February, a 22-year-old Washaw, N.C., woman was charged with murder after authorities accused her of abandoning her baby near a trash pile. Last month, a baby was found alive in a trash bag inside an abandoned clothes dryer at an apartment complex in Houston.
Locally, a 30-year-old Wayne County woman was charged in 2007 with child endangering after leaving her baby on the doorstep of a retired nurse in Wooster Township.
Women who are mentally unstable enough to abandon a newborn don't think about the safe haven option, Pertman said.
Other problems include treating the father like a ''sperm donor,'' encouraging women to conceal their pregnancies and ensuring that the children who are abandoned can never learn their genealogical or medical histories, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. The group published the report Unintended Consequences: Safe Haven Laws are Causing Problems, Not Solving Them in 2003.
Advocates hit back
That same year, the Discovery Institute, a group in Seattle, issued a report disputing the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report. Author William Pierce, the founding president of the National Council for Adoption, noted that the claims by the opposition couldn't be proven, either.
Saros said it's irritating to hear people argue against safe haven laws, especially when they say it makes it easier to dump babies.
''It's already easy to dump a child. You just have to find a damn Dumpster,'' said Saros, who worked in Franklin County and advocated in behalf of the state law when it was approved. ''That is just a ludicrous argument in my mind.''
Child-welfare advocates need to publicize the option more, he said.
''We need to develop a means for [parents] to surrender the child into the hands of people and agencies that will care for that child and find a permanent home and not endanger the life of the child and keep mom's confidence at the same time,'' Saros said. ''That's the purpose of that legislation.''