• April 2000
  • Vol. 1, No. 2

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States Consider Ways to Curb Infant Abandonment

A number of States and localities are looking at the ancient problem of infant abandonment in a new legislative light.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at least 23 States have proposed legislation related to infant abandonment. Currently, in these and other States, parents who discard their infants can face criminal charges, including murder charges if the infant dies. The bills try to discourage abandonment by providing some kind of legal protection to parents who leave their babies in a designated safe place, such as a hospital.

The specifics vary from State to State regarding the age of the children, the places they can be left, and the extent of protection and anonymity offered to parents. Most of the bills target newborns from up to 3 days old to 1 month old. Some bills would establish a "no questions asked" policy for a baby left in a designated place. Other proposals address such issues as obtaining a baby's medical history and terminating parental rights. Some States would forego prosecution altogether; others would not guarantee immunity but would provide parents with an "affirmative defense" if charges were filed. The bills would not protect parents who have abused or neglected their babies.

Legislative and child welfare professionals can't precisely account for why this particular population of children has entered the legislative limelight, but enactment of legislation in Texas last year along with some highly publicized grassroots initiatives in Mobile, Alabama, and Minneapolis have helped spark interest. The Texas law allows a person who brings a newborn to a designated safe place (hospital, police station, or fire station) to use their action as a defense against prosecution. Texas acted after 13 abandoned babies were found in Houston during a 10-month period in 1999.

The bills have both strong proponents and strong critics among some child-focused groups. Some professionals who are neither for nor against the proposals point out that the underlying premise of the bills has not been researched or evaluated.

The legislation "doesn't address the root causes [of infant abandonment], but maybe some babies [will be] saved," says John Krall, policy analyst for the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center (AIARC) in Berkeley, California. The Center is part of a training and technical assistance network of Child Welfare Resource Centers supported by the Children's Bureau.

AIARC was legislatively founded by Congress to focus on infants who are abandoned or at risk of abandonment in hospitals primarily for reasons related to parental substance abuse or HIV. Because of the current legislative and media interest, the Center recently has fielded many inquiries about babies abandoned outside of hospitals and is gathering data on the issue.

Interviews and analyses suggest the following issues for policy makers and practitioners to consider when addressing this population:

  • The number of babies abandoned in public places each year is relatively small, though this population has never been systematically tracked or counted. Unpublished Federal research based on a survey of press accounts estimates that in 1998, 105 infants were abandoned in public places, and 33 of the infants were dead when found.
  • Legislators and researchers define abandonment differently. For example, literature reviews of abandonment turn up little research related to the babies targeted by the proposed bills. "Mostly the literature describes discarding babies as part of infanticide," observes Krall.
  • The bills are primarily designed to protect "trash bin babies"--those whose parents would leave them in places where they would perish if not discovered quickly. Research indicates that staging successful interventions with these parents is very difficult. Many are teenage girls who have hidden their pregnancy. "It's difficult to know what kind of outreach would be effective," says Krall.

NCSL has compiled an analysis of State legislation on abandoned infants, including an overview of the pros and cons most often cited by supporters and critics. Visit NCSL online at http://www.ncsl.org or call 303-830-2200.

AIARC has been gathering information on this issue, particularly as it is addressed in the research literature. Visit AIARC online at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~aiarc or call 510-643-8390.

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