What happens when an infant is abandoned?

For most parents, the day of their child’s birth is one of the most joyous days to be experienced. It’s a time of adaptation and exploration of newfound love.

For many mothers, however, the feeling of excitement and hope is replaced with fear of financial struggles, social stigmas and an impeding loss of security.

According to a report done by the Michigan Department of Community Health, 57 babies were abandoned each day in the United States in 2001.

After the establishment of the Safe Haven law, which allows mothers to turn over babies who are under 72 hours old to safe places like hospitals, police departments and fire stations, the number of babies killed due to abandonment dropped significantly.

“The Michigan Safe Haven law allows parents to safely surrender their newborn child no more than 72 hours old to an employee who is inside and on duty at any hospital, fire department, police station, or by calling 911, without any threat of prosecution,” said Michigan adoption attorney, Julie Plath. “They release the baby so he can be adopted.”

All 50 states have adopted a law which protects mothers from persecution if they safely turn over an unwanted child to the appropriate designated safe spots.

 Some stop to ask "How can a mother abandon her baby?" and, "Why would a mother just leave her own child after nine months of pregnancy?"

Some legal experts in the field of adoption believe there are a number of reasons as to why a mother would abandon their child, including, experiencing an unexpected pregnancy, problems with the child’s father, and fear of social reproductions.

Who has automatic custody of an abandoned baby?

According to the report done by the Michigan Department of Community Health, all babies who have been turned over at designated safe spots have either been adopted or returned to the mother, who still has rights to the child even if she at one point abandoned the child. If a mother changes her mind after turning over her child, she must go through court proceedings to regain custody.

“Up to the point where mother's rights are terminated, she can change her mind. Once her rights are terminated and the 21 day appeal period has expired, but before the order of adoption is entered, she'd have to prove some type of duress, undue influence, or fraud," Plath said.

 “Once the final order of adoption is entered, it would be difficult to reverse the adoption absent fraud and then the best interest of the child.”

If the parents of the child cannot be located, the child becomes a ward of the state. If the child is turned over at a safe haven location, the state will take automatic custody and the mother will not be located unless abuse is suspected.

 However, efforts will be made to contact a non-surrendering parent such as the child’s father.

Can one keep a baby left on their doorstep?

In the case of abandoned babies who wind up in the hands of people other than medical professionals, the law doesn’t have a direct stance on what would happen if someone kept a baby they found.

“If a person had illegal possession of a child, it would depend on the facts of the situation and the prosecution as to what to charge the person with,” said Plath.

Michael McAllister, a government relations attorney in Florida, went on further to explain that an ordinary person with no legal ties to a child cannot just “keep” a baby they found; rather, they’re obligated to turn the child over to the state.

“A child can only have one legal guardian at a time. So, if a baby were found in the bushes, it would have to be turned over to protective custody of the state,” Mcallister said. “Only a formal adoption would give the right to keep a “found” child.”

Deaths despite the protective laws

The report done by the MDCH says that despite efforts by states to make the Safe Haven law and its nationwide equivalent public knowledge, babies are still dying from exposure to the elements when abandoned.

In Los Angeles County alone, 49 infants were abandoned between 2001 and 2006. Out of those 49, the report says only 10 of those babies survived.

The likely scenario is that the 10 were found before weather conditions or starvation set in.

Creative efforts to save lives

States like Indiana have made safely turning over an unwanted child easier for mothers who are incapable of taking care of their babies.

According to NBC News, two safe haven baby boxes were placed at fire stations.

The boxes are climate controlled and padded and are designed to lock once a child is placed in the box and the door is closed.

Once a child is placed inside the box, motion sensors will send a 911 call, alerting officials right away that a child has been left inside the box.

Deaths attributed to abandonment have dropped over the years due to laws protecting the birth mother and additional state resources, but incidents do still happen. 

To find out more information on the Safe Haven Law, click here.

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