Infant Safe Haven at Door County Medical Center

On the last day of 2021, a mother left her newborn in a box on a street corner in Alaska. Attached to the infant was a note that read, in part, "Please help me!!! I was born today on December 31, 2021 [at] 6AM. I was born 12 weeks premature…My parents and grandparents don't have food or money to raise me."

Safe haven newborn babyThe unfortunate reality is that not every new parent has the ability or desire to care for a newborn, and every year, infant abandonment can—and does—occur for a number of reasons, from a lack of financial resources or social support, to the stigma associated with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. In 2021 alone, 31 babies were placed in dumpsters, found in backpacks, or discarded in other dangerous locations across the United States.

However, that same year, 73 babies were saved by safe haven laws. "Safe haven was really inspired by a concern over rising neonatal deaths due to abandonment in the late 1990s," says Sandy Vandertie, MSN RN and Director of Outpatient Services at Door County Medical Center (DCMC). "As a result," she adds, "there was a big push nationwide to create a safe space where the birth parent or a caregiver could safely relinquish a newborn without fear of legal consequences. 

What are safe haven laws?

Newborn babyA safe haven law, also known as a safe surrender law or a baby abandonment law, is a legal measure designed to provide a way for parents to safely relinquish their newborn infants, typically within a specific age range, to designated locations without facing criminal prosecution. These laws are enacted to prevent instances of child abandonment or infanticide and to ensure that newborns have a chance to be placed in a safe environment, such as foster care or adoption.

The specifics of safe haven laws can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but they generally share some common features:

  • Designated Locations: Safe haven laws establish specific locations where a parent, or an agent of the parent, can leave their newborns without legal consequences. These locations often include hospitals and clinics, fire stations, police stations, and other public facilities.

  • Age Limit: There is usually an age limit set for the child, often ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks old. This limit varies depending on the jurisdiction.

  • Anonymity: Many safe haven laws allow parents to relinquish their newborns anonymously, meaning they don't need to provide their names or any identifying information.

  • Immunity from Prosecution: Parents who use the safe haven option to relinquish their child are typically granted immunity from criminal prosecution for abandonment or neglect, as long as they follow the procedures outlined in the law.

The first safe haven law was passed in Texas in 1999. Since then, all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have enacted safe haven legislation.

Doctor checking baby's heartbeatPer the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, "Under Wisconsin law, a parent can leave their unharmed newborn child under 72 hours old with a police officer, 911 emergency medical staff person, or hospital staff member without fear of legal consequences. If you do not indicate that you will be back for your child this is called 'Safe Haven' or 'Infant Relinquishment.' You do not have to give your name or address to the professional accepting the baby, unless: the baby has been harmed; you are being forced by someone to give up the baby; the baby is more than 3 days old."

Door County Medical Center is a designated safe haven location

Door County Medical Center has had a written safe haven policy, and has trained staff on that policy since 2002. "At some safe haven locations," remarks Vandertie, "there are Safe Haven Baby Boxes, which are physical boxes. So, for example, if a baby is placed in a Safe Haven Baby Box at a fire station, a bell will ring alerting the firemen, and the parent or caregiver can walk away in complete anonymity."

"At DCMC, we don't provide a Safe Haven Baby Box," Vandertie notes. "Rather, our internal policy follows along these lines: if someone comes in to relinquish a newborn, they can relinquish virtually anywhere in the hospital and to any employee, no questions asked."

She continues, "Once the infant is relinquished, we follow official hospital policy. First, we would try to make a judgment call about its age, and also try to ascertain, per state law, whether the parent was planning on returning for the baby. If it seems as though they won't be returning, then we accept responsibility for the infant." After the infant is accepted, it is taken to pediatrics or the Emergency Department—depending on the time of day—for a medical evaluation.

A packet is also provided to the person relinquishing the infant that both looks for information and provides it. "While it is absolutely not required, we're hoping the person relinquishing the infant will stay long enough to fill out the portion of the packet that provides us with detailed information regarding mom's health at the time of the drop off—is she a smoker, or does she have diabetes or heart disease, that kind of thing—so that we have more information to better care for the infant," Vandertie says. The packet also provides information about services—resources and education for the mother related to postpartum concerns.

Newborn babyBy offering an anonymous and legal alternative, safe haven laws have provided a crucial safety net for vulnerable newborns and helped prevent instances of child abandonment, allowing parents in distress to relinquish their infants at designated locations without fear of legal repercussions and ensuring that infants are placed in protective custody and receive proper care. Indeed, since 1999, over 4,500 newborns have been relinquished to designated safe haven locations.

For more information on safe haven, and on safe haven locations across the state, please visit the National Safe Haven Alliance website at:, or call 1-888-510-2229.

Published 8/25/2023 2:13:10 PM
Tags: infant, newborn, news, safe haven

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