By Barbara Bellinger
Capital News Service
LANSING – In the past 11 years, the number of Michigan infants who were abandoned illegally has declined dramatically from 62 in 2010 to just 18 to date in 2021, according to state statistics.
Experts say a 2001 safe haven law is a major contributor to the decrease.
In the late 1990s, increasing media reports of infants found in dumpsters, on church steps, in bathrooms and on the sides of roads prompted lawmakers to pass the Safe Delivery Law. It allows parents to surrender their infant for adoption legally, safely and confidentially within 72 hours of birth.
Since then, the law has rescued 288 children from abandonment, and at times death, in 38 counties, according to the Division of Maternal & Infant Health at the Department of Health and Human Services.
While challenges remain, advocates say overall it has been a success.
The law was developed with the infants’ health and safety in mind, said Heather Boyd, a maternal infant vitality specialist for the division.
“We’re very grateful for all of the hard work and dedication of the hospitals and emergency personnel who have helped provide hundreds of families and Michigan with this safe legal option,” Boyd said.
Infants can be legally surrendered to hospitals, emergency service providers such as police and fire departments and through 911. Hospitals received the vast majority of surrenders – 281 infants. Fire stations received six, and one was left at a police station.
“I think that families just know that their hospitals are a safe place,” Boyd said. “But awareness of the law remains a critical issue.”
Advocates for safe haven laws say they need funding for advertising.
A $10 million proposal to promote adoption as an alternative to abortion was part of a package of pro-life initiatives, vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in this year’s state budget.
The funding would also have been used to advertise safe delivery as an option that leads to adoption, said Genevieve Marnon, the legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan.
And there are plenty of Michigan families waiting to adopt a child.
“For every one infant adoption, there are 36 couples waiting to adopt a baby,” Marnon said.
Bethany Christian Services is a private adoption agency that places surrendered infants in approved adoptive homes.
It has successfully placed 30 surrendered babies in the last four years, 11 in 2020 alone.
“We find, all the time, medical professionals that aren’t familiar with (the law), and do need to be educated about it,” said Dawn Baker, the director of infant adoption. “There is a need for broad education, so that people can be aware of it.”
Bethany Services uses the free educational materials provided by the Division of Maternal Health on its website.
“We talk long and hard about this law to whomever will listen to us. We do education with our hospitals and help to train those medical professionals that are going to encounter these women who come in,” Baker said.
While Safe Delivery was developed with infants in mind, Michigan’s program has evolved to a more inclusive and holistic approach.
“Most of the laws around the country are not built ensuring the safety and health of the entire family,” Boyd said.
“Michigan is very proud that over the last decade, we have moved towards making sure that mom has a safe environment to return to,” said Boyd. “That she is getting the care she needs if she needs any mental or physical health care.”
No one type of family makes use of legal infant surrender, advocates say. And there are other options.
“A number of the moms who choose safe delivery have a closed adoption,” said Nate Bult, the senior vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany. Closed adoption means the birth parent(s) will have no direct contact with the adoptive family.
“But it’s become far more common for many moms, who choose to make an adoption plan for their child, to choose an open adoption,” he said. “Mom still has a relationship with her child and with her child’s adoptive family long into the future.
Right to Life of Michigan supports the recent reintroduction of a law allowing ‘baby boxes’ as another legal surrender option and an alternative to abortion.
Baby boxes are equipped with heating and cooling features and notify emergency service providers within 30 seconds. They are installed on the sides of fire stations, hospitals or other public safety buildings, according to the Safe Haven Baby Boxes website.
Former Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a similar bill in 2018, stating the need for interaction between the surrendering parent and fire, police or hospital personnel.
But babies aren’t always born in hospitals, said Marnon. “Sometimes women hide their pregnancies.”
And this can lead to a baby born at home or elsewhere, in secret.
“Many times that’s done when there’s been sexual assault,” said Baker, “where there’s been abusive relationships and there is fear of identifying all the individuals that are involved.
One intent of the ‘baby box’ is to provide women a means of legally surrendering their babies that gives the new mother and baby an extra layer of confidentiality and safety and one that doesn’t involve a dumpster or a trash bag.
The boxes are in use in the United States in Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Florida and Arizona, where they are called ‘baby drawers.’ Indiana has not had a death by abandonment since it installed its first baby box in April 2016, according to Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
Not every new parent can get to one of the above-mentioned locations, and there is a legal surrender option for them, too, said Marnon.
“Call 911,” said Marnon. “This would bring paramedics to her location and she can legally surrender the baby.” 911 for surrender has never been used in Michigan.
Said Baker, “We just want them to know that we’re here in a nonjudgmental place, that we’re just here to come alongside them, and to share with them and to walk alongside them as they make the decision that they feel is best for their child.”