No Shame and No Names: Safe Havens for Teen Moms
By: Christina Updegraff
Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Volume 18
Many new moms and dads aren’t ready for the responsibility that comes with their new little one and the average teenager is even less prepared, if they even want the baby at all. As a result, about thirty percent of teenage pregnancies end in abortion. Additionally, if the three month window of opportunity ends up running before she even learns about her pregnancy, then the kid is coming—ready or not. Tragically, there have been some even more extreme cases in which the mother left the baby to die or even killed it them self (e.g. eighteen-year-old “Prom Mom” who had a baby at the prom and then threw it away).
In an attempt to prevent unwanted children from being “thrown away” Congress enacted Safe Haven laws. In response to the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which provided federal funds to states for their respective foster care systems, every state in the U.S. implemented some sort of safe haven law. These laws allow the mother, or someone authorized by the mother, to bring the infant into a designated place to relinquish their parental rights—no criminal liability and no questions asked.
Of course the laws differ from state to state, but the designated place is usually some sort of medical facility, fire station, police station, or church. The person who receives the baby may be required to ask about information regarding the mother or health history but the mom is under no obligation to answer. If the child isn’t relinquished to a hospital, it must be promptly brought to one by the person receiving the child and given whatever medical attention necessary.
The infant also has to be under a certain age to be received according to the Safe Haven laws. It ranges from less than seventy-two hours in twelve states and may even be allowed up to one year (two states). Most states keep their statutory age one month or less.
Once the child has been received by the facility and cared for at the hospital, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is contacted and they take custody of the child. Once in DHS custody, the state usually takes steps to make sure the child receives adequate care and is found a permanent home. In Iowa, for example, DHS will immediately file a Child in Need of Assistance petition as well as a petition for termination of parental rights. Although the child is then placed in the foster care system, it is at least given the chance not only to live, but to thrive.
The truth is that some teenage girls may be too embarrassed and frightened to let anyone know that they’re pregnant or to be a teenage mom. Safe Haven laws provide choices. Giving these girls more choices for their future ensures that they are given an opportunity to complete their education and grow to be the mother they want to be someday.
*See generally Infant Safe Haven Laws (Child Welfare Information Gateway) for each individual state’s Safe Haven law.