Two cases in the last week have placed the spotlight on the necessity of Safe Haven laws for protecting babies who might otherwise come to harm.
Last Tuesday night, a woman walked into a Tulsa urgent care clinic holding a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached. The woman handed the baby to a nurse, telling her that she was homeless and unable to care for the infant, before walking out the door and riding away in a vehicle with paper covering the license plate.
And only a day before that, a custodian at a church in Queens discovered a newborn baby--also with umbilical cord attached--lying in the manger of the church's nativity scene.
In neither case is the mother expected to be charged with abandoning her child, because both Oklahoma and New York have "Safe Haven" laws that, under certain conditions, allow a parent to relinquish his or her child at a medical facility, child welfare agency, or police or fire station.
Safe haven laws are intended to save newborns who might otherwise be abandoned and left for dead. All too often, we hear of babies being delivered and left in toilets or found discarded in dumpsters. In March 2013, child welfare advocates and local fire departments began promoting awareness of Oklahoma's safe haven law after a family's dog found the body of a newborn baby girl in southeast Oklahoma City. The baby's death could have been prevented had her mother known that she had an option for relinquishing the baby without penalty.
Each state's safe haven law is different. For example, when the law first took effect in Nebraska in 2001, the law applied to "any child," and 16 children were abandoned in less than a year. One father even relinquished nine children at a medical center.
Oklahoma's safe haven law is intended to save newborns who might not otherwise have a chance of survival--not to allow the abandonment of older children who may suffer emotionally from being discarded by their parents. The law applies only to infants up to a week old.
Under 10A O.S. §1-2-109, no parent shall be prosecuted for abandonment or neglect of a child aged 7 days or younger based solely upon the voluntary relinquishment of the infant to a "medical services provider or a child rescuer." The law defines a medical services provider as "a person authorized to practice the healing arts, including a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner, a registered or practical nurse and a nurse aide." A child rescuer includes any of the following: "any employee or other designated person on duty at a police station, fire station, child protective services agency, hospital, or other medical facility."
Although the person receiving the surrendered child may ask questions about the baby or the parent, the parent relinquishing the child is not obligated to answer and the child rescuer must respect the parent's wishes to remain anonymous:
"Any entity . . . to which a parent seeks to relinquish a child pursuant to the provisions of this section may [r]equest, but not demand, any information about the child that the parent is willing to share. The entity is encouraged to ask about, but not demand, the details of any relevant medical history relating to the child or the parents of the child. The entity shall respect the wish of the parent if the parent desires to remain anonymous."
It is important to note that the Oklahoma safe haven law applies only to infants up to a week old who are surrendered to a hospital, medical facility, police station, fire station, or child protective services agency. In all other cases, a parent who abandons a child may be charged with child neglect and other crimes.
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