I was the detective that responded to our county landfill where employees had reportedly discovered a dead newborn baby. I saw a baby whose body had lacerations about her legs and her skin was ripped in different areas of her body. Her wavy brown hair-covered head was cut in half and was mashed. Her legs were twisted beyond belief, and I tried to convince myself that I was not looking at a baby but the blood covered little hands and feet told me otherwise. I was looking at a real life horror story that I, for one, will never forget. -- Sheriff Robert Holland
Sheriff Holland's introduction to infanticide may have taken place five years ago, but the problem dates back thousands of years, and persists to this day. Indeed, on December 7, 2006, a tiny girl was left for dead in the women’s restroom of the local McDonald’s restaurant in Zebulon, North Carolina, just a few miles down Route 43 from my house. The little girl was barely eight hours old . Afterbirth covered her from head to toe, and her umbilical cord was amateurishly clamped shut with a simple paper clip. Fortunately, a decent and caring woman came along a few minutes later, and, seeing the child alone and crying in the restroom, immediately called the appropriate rescue personnel. Thanks to this kind Samaritan, the baby girl appears to have suffered no ill effects from her ordeal. Indeed, offers of assistance –- ranging from gifts of money all the way to offers of adoption –- have already begun to pour in to her from across the state.
Sadly, such stories are not uncommon, and most don’t end nearly so well. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that as many as 100 to 200 newborns are killed or left to die each year, and that number has risen consistently over the past several decades. Indeed, the incidents of child abandonment in public places rose over 60 percent between 1992 and 1998.
The average age of the mother in these neonatal abandonment cases is a mere 19 years old. Well over half of these new mothers are unmarried and without financial support, few have any health insurance, and a disturbing percentage of them have managed to successfully hide their pregnancies from their families as well as from the natural father. These mothers typically have little or no secondary education, and less than 25 percent of them even bothered to take any steps to ensure the prenatal health of her child. Under such dismal circumstances, it is no wonder that some young women view abandonment as a viable -– and attractive -– option.
And a gruesome option it is. The theoretical concept of infanticide and infant abandonment is bad enough, but the actual implementation is often far worse. Consider the following:
- Asphyxiation and strangling account for approximately 40% of infant deaths.
Another 25-30% of infant deaths are from drowning
Exposure to the elements accounts for approximately another 20% of infant deaths
And contrary to popular belief, over 60% of infanticide victims are boys, while the racial mix splits fairly evenly amongst black and white infants
Here's another sobering statistic: the risk of homicide on the first day of life is 10 times greater than at any other time of life. And it’s not simply a question of bad intent on the mother’s part. Indeed, a desperate woman may abandon her child in a panic, foolishly believing that the baby will be discovered before it dies. In my newly adopted home state of North Carolina, for example, the rising tide of infant mortality resulting from such irrational beliefs only emphasizes the growing need for education and reform:
- In 2003, a student from the University of North Carolina murdered her newborn child in Key West, Florida. A security guard at the hotel where the couple stayed “found a plastic bag and blood-soaked towels that contained the baby’s corpse. The umbilical cord and placenta were still attached and forensic evidence suggested the baby had been alive at birth.” the mother was charges with manslaughter. The father denied knowing of the pregnancy and delivery and, incredibly, was not indicted.
In 2004, an immigrant mother from Guatemala left her newborn infant in an abandoned trailer in Mt. Olive, North Carolina. An employee of the trailer park found the dead infant when he went to clean it. “The baby was wrapped in a blanket, lying on the floor.” The 19 year old mother was charged with concealing the birth of a child and homicide.
Also in 2004, a 13-year old girl gave birth to twins in bathtub and then dropped them out a window in Columbia, North Carolina.
In 2005, a newborn infant, wrapped in dirty rags with the umbilical cord and placenta tucked inside, was found dead in a ditch by the side of a road under construction.
In 2005, a newborn infant was found dead in trash bag outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. According to the medical examiner, the baby was born “full term and alive.”
In 2006, an infant with his umbilical cord wrapped around his body was found dead in the city’s wastewater system. According to reports, “investigators weren’t sure at this point how the baby got into the wastewater treatment facility, but they said there is a strong possibility the mother simply flushed her newborn down the toilet.”
Safe Haven Laws
In response to these troubling developments, state legislatures have enacted so-called safe haven laws, by which a state’s legislature designates certain locations deemed to be “safe havens” for an overwhelmed parent to surrender her child, without fear of criminal or civil liability.
Texas enacted the first such law in 1999. Since then, 45 more states have adopted similar legislation, with Arkansas, Hawaii, Nebraska and Vermont remaining the only holdouts.
While the particulars of each state’s legislation differ, the core principles remain pretty much the same. Specifically, each state’s statute designates certain locations -- hospitals, police stations, and firehouses are the most common choices -- where a mother may surrender her child, under conditions of complete anonymity and freedom from criminal or civil penalty. The maximum age for surrender under these laws varies by state, from as short as 72 hours to as long as 30 days. Most states fall within the 7-10 day range.
North Carolina’s Safe Surrender Law
Of the 46 states adopting “safe haven” laws, however, North Carolina stands unique. Where other states’ laws require a new mother –- likely frightened, probably uneducated, definitely overwhelmed –- to determine which locations are appropriate and then travel there in order to safely relinquish her child, North Carolina’s law requires no such thing.
Instead, under North Carolina law, a parent may relinquish an unharmed, newborn child to any responsible adult, regardless of location or affiliation.
North Carolina’s law was enacted in 2001 after an infant had been suffocated and later found dead in a bale of trash in a Macon County landfill. The mother was convicted of murder and sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison. North Carolina General Statute §7B-500 now allows a parent to safely leave an infant under seven days old with “any responsible adult.” The parent giving up the baby is not required to provide any information or names –- and is not subject to criminal prosecution or child support for such abandonment.
Certain healthcare providers (like hospitals, health departments, and non-profit clinics), law enforcement officers, and department of social services are required to accept a child proferred under this statute, but any adult may agree to do so. An adult who receives a baby under the statute is required to keep it safe and warm, and to call 911 or the local department of social services right away. The surrendering parent is not required to give any identifying information. The overall goal of this program is to have the baby adopted into a safe and loving home as quickly as possible.
First Impressions Can Be Misleading
My first exposure to this statute took place in a convenience store in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where I saw a flyer posted on a wall giving information about the Safe Surrender program. A toll-free hotline was listed (1-800-FOR-BABY), along with a plain-English (and Spanish) explanation of the statute and how legally to surrender a child.
I must confess that the first thought that ran through my mind was “What kind of state have I moved into?” I mean, I had never heard of safe haven laws, so as far as I knew, North Carolina had passed this law because it was the state for dumping newborn babies in the trash. Not a good way to start my new life, with my 16-month old son, no less.
Since looking into it more carefully, though, I found out that virtually every state has a safe haven law, and that it’s better to have one than not. A scared, insecure parent who has the option of legally and safely relinquishing her child is less likely to harm or kill her baby. And North Carolina’s law -– which allows a parent to surrender her baby to “any responsible adult” –- is likely to do the most good, since it requires the fewest steps from the overburdened and terrified parent.
A quick glance at the list of infant deaths in North Carolina –- some of which have taken place after the Safe Surrender law was passed –- makes clear that simply passing the law is not enough. Indeed, since the law’s passage, a number of newborns have been abandoned unsafely or killed. Six have died. Clearly, public awareness is crucial to help parents know this option exists, and also to alert the public that receiving a surrendered newborn is legal.
Ideally, public education should go even further, teaching teen mothers that they have the option of placing their child up for adoption or with foster homes once they are born. But for those cases where the mother has slipped through the cracks –- and has a screaming, newborn infant on her hands –- the Safe Surrender law is the best way to save as many children as possible.