Iowa lawmakers may expand state's 'safe haven' law

Proposal would extend age for relinquishing newborns from two weeks to one year

A safe haven sign hangs in the entrance of Helen G. Nassif Center for Women's & Children's Health Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids after a baby boy was dropped off at the hospital's main registration desk under the state's
A safe haven sign hangs in the entrance of Helen G. Nassif Center for Women's & Children's Health Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids after a baby boy was dropped off at the hospital's main registration desk under the state's "safe haven" law earlier in the day. The newborn was in a basket with a note attached saying "safe haven baby," referencing the Iowa law that allows unwanted babies 14 days or younger to be left at any health facility with no questions asked. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Iowa lawmakers are being asked to consider expanding the state’s “safe haven” law but advocates worry that a proposal to allow parents up to a year to give up a child without facing prosecution for abandonment may be too much.

“I’m concerned that we need to offer more opportunities to people to safe haven children who are unwanted,” said Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, a social worker who proposed House File 2135 – a bill that seeks to expand Iowa’s newborn Safe Haven Act established in 2001 to include a child who is one year of age or younger.

“I think this is a balance and as a Legislature we have to choose between conflicting and competing values. This is about saving some children or possibly saving some lives,” Smith told a House subcommittee on Wednesday. ““I’m hoping we can avoid more tragedies by extending the time period. If this offers the ability to be a distress signal and help parents who are having concerns access services, then I think it’s worth it to us to expand it to one year.”

To address infant abandonment and infanticide, Iowa -- like virtually every other U.S. state -- has enacted safe haven legislation as an incentive for mothers in crisis to safely relinquish their babies to designated locations where the babies are protected and provided with medical care until a permanent home is found.

Current Iowa law extends the provisions to only a newborn infant who is or appears to be 14 days of age or younger and allows the parent, or an agent of the parent, to remain anonymous and to be shielded from prosecution for abandonment or neglect in exchange for surrendering the baby to a safe haven.

Wendy Rickman of the state Department of Human Services said the law has been used 14 times with the most recent case taking place in December 2009, with all 14 babies having been successfully adopted.

Stephen Scott of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa said he supported moving up the age to a month or so to assist those “totally unprepared for parenting,” but he worried that stretching the time frame out to a year might become an incentive for parents to “just give up” or to abandon children with health problems or who have been abused or neglected as a way to escape prosecution or responsibility. He said there also would have to be basic information like names and contact information that currently is not required that could weaken the law’s safety intent.

“We are losing the opportunity to perhaps engage a parent in better processes for parenting, building some social support or something to give the parent a second chance of parenting if someone can just leave a baby and walk away,” Scott said. He noted that requiring the contact information could provide the opportunity of convincing the parent to “give this another try.”

“Anybody who has been a parent knows there are those moments when it really seems almost too challenging to go on,” he said. “People who find themselves in that position, who really don’t have the resources or the support to dig in and make their way through that time, to just allow them to come in after six or eight months is potentially a negative consequence that we don’t want.”

Jodi Tomlonovic, executive director of the Family Planning Council of Iowa, said she was concerned that money has not been allocated to properly publicize the law to the point where the safe haven statute has been around for more than a decade and many Iowans, particularly young people, aren’t aware of its existence.

Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference echoed that concern. While supportive of the law and a possible expansion, he said his organization was worried about “negative, unexpected consequences of making it a year.”

Rickman said most state laws range from birth to 30 days. She said about $55,000 in federal money was used to promote the law’s existence when it first took effect but little has been done to inform Iowans since then due to a lack of funding.

Rep. Ron Jorgenson, R-Sioux City, the subcommittee chairman, said the panel needed more time to gather information about what other states are doing and possible effects of going to a longer time frame. With a Feb. 24 “funnel” deadline bearing down for bills to clear at least one committee in the House or the Senate, Jorgenson said it was unlikely but not impossible that the measure would remain eligible for consideration yet this session.

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