By Jeffery M. Leving
Last week, a two-week-old baby girl was found in a pile of trash in the Chicago suburb Franklin Park- this, despite the fact that Illinois has a “safe haven” law. Nearly every state in America has a “safe haven” law that allows mothers to abandon their children at designated hospitals, fire stations, or police stations and just walk away from their responsibilities as a parent. There are no legal ramifications or accountability for the mother and few, if any, questions asked- most importantly- where is the child’s father?
In most cases, the father is probably unaware of the child as well as the ultimate fate of his child. With the built-in anonymity that “safe haven” laws afford the mother, there is very little chance that the father will ever be contacted so that he can pursue custody and care for his child and be afforded due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
“Safe haven” laws were passed to protect infants that are literally being thrown into dumpsters and garbage cans and left to die. However, statistics have shown that even with the “safe haven” laws in place; mothers are still disposing of their infants in this terrible way, as with the baby found Tuesday evening. Each “safe haven” law in each state has its own unique language. Some states give mothers 30 days to abandon their children and others, such as Nebraska, give no age definition of a minor child. A man in Nebraska recently dropped 9 of his 10 children off at a hospital; they ranged from ages 1 to 17- all of them fitting the legal definition of a minor child.
This rare occurrence of a father abandoning his children under a “safe haven” law only complicates the problems with the law itself. Perhaps the most powerful argument against “safe haven” laws is that they enable children to be thought of as throwaway trash.
The irony in the “safe haven” laws lies with continued gender bias that surrounds the rights of fathers. When a father chooses to opt out of parenthood and just walk away from his paternal responsibilities, he becomes a “deadbeat dad” or worse, he goes to jail for failing to live up to his financial responsibilities. Yet, when a mother decides that she will not take care of her child, she is given anywhere from 78 hours to 18 years, in some states, to “safely” abandon her child. Unlike a traditional adoption, the father does not have to be notified, does not have to legally relinquish his parental rights, and the child is denied a chance to grow up with dad or members of his biological family.
A father’s lack of knowledge of the existence of his child or the intentions of the mother to abandon the child is not grounds for termination of a father’s legal rights as a parent. The very nature of the law erodes the importance of the American family and the values we place on it.
Opponents of the law also argue that the mothers who are disposing of their children in such a manner are clearly in need of psychological counseling, yet, there is no opportunity to provide them with the counseling they are in desperate need of. There is also an aspect of validating to a teenager, or an irresponsible adult, that there are no consequences to their actions. These “safe haven” laws are telling our youth that they can go ahead and have casual, unprotected sex without responsibility. Pregnancy no longer means that you must become a parent, just return the child and move on with your life. Lastly, unlike traditional adoption, children who are abandoned in such a way are denied the right to know their medical history, a consequence that can be life threatening.
While the “safe haven” laws were born out of good intentions, the problems that they have created outweigh the benefits, especially when mothers continue to abandon their children in dangerous and life threatening ways. Lawmakers and legislators are torn on how to fix the laws so that they protect the child while still affording the father parental rights and safeguards to claim and raise his child. Most states have created punitive father registries to afford fathers notice, however, these registries are pointless if the mother’s identity is not established and the fathers are not provided actual notice. Also, the fact that these registries exist is not known to the public at large.
Fathers cannot be kicked to the curb while their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection are trampled upon. “Safe haven” laws aren’t working for everyone and need to be reengineered so that they correctly protect children who would otherwise meet certain death, and protect their fathers who have a right to know that their children exist and are about to be abandoned.