Safe-haven laws (also known in some states as "Baby Moses laws", in reference to the religious scripture) are statutes in the United States that decriminalize the leaving of unharmed infants with statutorily designated private persons so that the child becomes a ward of the state. "Safe-haven" laws typically let parents remain nameless to the court, often using a numbered bracelet system as the only means of linking the baby to the parent. Some states treat safe-haven surrenders as child dependency or abandonment, with a complaint being filed for such in juvenile court. The parent either defaults or answers the complaint. Others treat safe-haven surrenders as adoption surrenders, hence a waiver of parental rights (see parental responsibility). Police stations, hospitals, rescue squads, and fire stations are all typical locations to which the safe-haven law applies.
Texas was the first state to enact a “Baby Moses Law” in 1999, although the Safe Place originates in Mobile, Alabama after a string of infanticides. The Texan legislation was sponsored by a freshman Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, Geanie Morrison of Victoria, who is still serving in the chamber.
Supporters of safe-haven laws claim that the laws save lives by encouraging parents to surrender infants safely instead of aborting, killing, or discarding them. Detractors claim that, because safe-haven laws do not require parents to be under stress, one parent will use the law largely to avoid notice to the non-surrendering parent. The laws have also been criticized due to the fact that in some states, safe-haven laws favor mothers.
Critics also claim that safe-haven laws undercut temporary surrender laws, which were enacted specifically for parents who are unsure about whether to keep or relinquish their children. Supporters counter by arguing that anonymity is the only way to convince certain parents not to harm their infants, and that the benefit outweighs any claimed detriment.
Controversy has arisen out the safe-haven law enacted in Nebraska in July 2008. The Nebraska law has been interpreted to define a child as anyone under 18, and has resulted in the desertion of teenage children. Under this law, at least 35 children were dropped off in Nebraska hospitals in a four-month span, at least 5 of them from other US states. The law was changed in November 2008, allowing only infants up to 30 days old to be surrendered.
As of January 8, 2006, only one case had challenged the constitutionality of a safe-haven law. Unable to allege personal harm, the plaintiff argued that the public had to know in advance that the State would not help parents hide children from each other. Also, because anonymity thwarted a non-surrendering parent from the outset, and could be used by any parent arbitrarily, the law threatened the public generally. The court dismissed the case, finding that the alleged harm did not rise to the level needed to justify a public action. Thus, the plaintiff's claim that the safe-haven law violated the separation of powers doctrine by circumventing the Supreme Court's rule-making authority remained unaddressed.
But in 2007, an Ohio Court of Common Pleas ruled that the entire Ohio Deserted Child Act was void for violating the Supreme Court's rule-making authority. In re Baby Boy Doe, 145 Ohio Misc.2d 1, 2007-Ohio-7244. There, the parent had left the child at the hospital, expressing an intent to leave the child and to have the child adopted. The parent never contacted the hospital or the state agency afterward. The non-surrendering parent's identity and location were not fully known. After being granted temporary custody, the state agency moved for permanent custody, as needed for adoption. The attorney and the guardian ad litem for the child argued that certain statutes of the safe haven act violated the separation of powers doctrine under Art IV, Sec. 5(B) of the Ohio Constitution. The court agreed, finding that the safe-haven laws' notice and anonymity statutes conflicted with the notice provisions of Juvenile Rule 15 and the due diligence requirements of other court rules. Juv.R. 15 required issuing summons to the parties ordering them to appear before the court. Because the main purpose of the safe-haven law was to keep parents anonymous and immune from prosecution, Juvenile Rule 15 undermined the safe-haven laws' purpose. But the anonymity and notice statutes being procedural, the court rules governed. Because the notice and anonymity statutes could not be reconciled with the remaining safe-haven statutes, the whole safe-haven act was void. The original safe-haven complaint and permanent custody motion were dismissed. The case was not appealed.
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