Virginia legislators expand ‘safe haven’ laws allowing parents to give up infants

Proponents say the laws prevent abuse, but there’s little evidence on their effectiveness

By: - March 7, 2022 12:02 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

With a final vote last week, the Virginia General Assembly passed a slew of bills that will give parents more time to abandon their newborn children at designated drop-off spots — and launch a state hotline to increase awareness of the measure. 

All four bills introduced this year will expand Virginia’s safe haven laws, which offer legal protection to parents or guardians who relinquish their children as long as the infants are left at a hospital or 24-hour EMS agency (including fire stations or rescue squads). Three of the measures, including incorporated bills from Sens. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, extend the 14-day timeframe for the protections, allowing parents to surrender infants up to a month old. Another bill from Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, requires the Virginia Department of Social Services to set up a 24-hour hotline with information on the laws and launch a statewide marketing campaign to increase awareness. 

Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell.  (AP Photo/POOL, Bob Brown).

Each of the bills was sponsored by a Republican legislator and vocally supported by anti-abortion advocacy groups, including the Virginia Society for Human Life. But all four passed with broad bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

“This is a very good bill,” Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, said in a committee hearing on Farris’ bill last month. “I like it very much.”

The rare show of support from both sides of the aisle isn’t surprising within the national context of safe haven laws, which were rapidly adopted by all 50 states beginning in the late 1990s. But their endorsement by pro-life advocates underscores how the measures have become closely linked to reproductive issues, especially amid intense national debate over the future of abortion rights.

Virginia passed its own safe haven law in 2004, but the issue regained national attention late last year after Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett repeatedly brought up the measures in a hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — a case with the potential to overturn or significantly weaken the court’s landmark abortion decision in Roe v. Wade

Barrett suggested that safe haven laws could resolve a common argument in favor of abortion — that it prevents mothers from being forced into parenthood. The idea wasn’t entirely new. In 2004, a circuit court judge in Texas suggested that the laws had dramatically altered the reproductive landscape in a way that could prompt the reversal of Roe if it was ever reconsidered, according to a 2006 article by the legal expert Carol Sanger. 

The renewed focus on safe haven laws in Virginia has worried many pro-choice advocates. It’s not the first year that lawmakers have re-examined the initiative, but some were puzzled by the timing — and number — of bills this year.

“We don’t oppose these bills,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of Pro Choice Virginia. “It’s just that the implication is a bit frightening. We’re at a point in this debate where we are truly anticipating going back decades. So what really concerns me is, why now? What was the impetus of these bills, and do the patrons anticipate an influx of people who are unable to access legal abortion at some point in the future?”

‘We just don’t have good data on any of this’

Most proponents in Virginia, though, say the measures aren’t specifically aimed at reducing abortion. Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, said the intention was “to create yet another option” for women to safely relinquish their infants “in a way that provides hope and possibility,” especially if they’re facing a crisis that makes it impossible to raise a child. 

“I do believe whenever you give women greater access to assistance, information about how they can get the help they’re looking for and better information about how to care for their babies, different decisions are often made,” she added when asked specifically about Barrett’s arguments on safe haven laws. Fariss, whose bill aims to establish a statewide hotline, said he envisioned the measures specifically as a protection for women who were being trafficked.

“You have to be in a dark place to even think about doing this,” he said. “But someone who’s trafficking women might allow her to give up her baby to make it safe.” The bills from Ruff and Peake, along with nearly identical legislation from Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover, also set new regulations for so-called “newborn safety devices,” alarm-activated and temperature-controlled boxes installed at hospitals that would allow parents to surrender infants without any face-to-face interaction at all. 

Hospitals aren’t required to install the devices, but in committee hearings, advocates said it could help more parents feel comfortable relinquishing their infants under the law.

(Getty Images)

It’s efficacy, though, that’s emerged as one of the biggest arguments against the initiative. In 1999, Texas enacted the first safe haven law in the country after 13 newborns were found abandoned on doorsteps or in Dumpsters. Three were found dead, according to Sanger’s article. The idea of preventing infant deaths allowed the laws to gain wide traction, including among Virginia Democrats who otherwise share few positions with anti-abortion groups.

In the years since the laws were passed, infant abandonments have remained rare. From 2018 to 2021, a total of 19 infants have been surrendered under Virginia’s safe haven law, according to statistics from the Virginia Department of Social Services. 2019 saw the lowest number, with one baby abandoned. 2020 saw the highest, with nine — less than one percent of all live births in the same year

Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner only has publicly available data through 2019, but in 2018 and 2019, there were a combined 14 child homicide deaths under the age of one — double the number of infants relinquished over the same two years.

Julian Walker, vice president of communications for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said he’s also not aware of any hospitals that currently have newborn safety devices installed on-site. That includes Sentara, one of the state’s largest health systems, which is only aware of one relinquishment at a hospital in Virginia, according to spokesperson Dale Gauding.

“A Sentara CarePlex Hospital (Hampton) clinical manager tells me they had a drop-off in 2019,” he wrote. “Car pulled up with three guys and a young-looking girl inside. A guy got out with the baby and put it in the arms of a nurse at the ED entrance and they left. Baby appeared to be hours old.”

According to Gauding, the baby was placed with a foster family and adopted about a year later. And Leah Kipley, a Virginia representative for the National Safe Haven Alliance, emphasized that the laws are still serving their purpose even if they’re helping a single infant.

Still, Emily Douglas, chair of the Department of Social Work and Child Advocacy at Montclair State University, said there’s little comprehensive data on the number of relinquishments that meet the criteria of safe haven laws, much less the outcomes after infants are relinquished. In 2021, she studied calls to the National Safe Haven Alliance hotline, which is co-operated with a pro-life call center called Option Line, according to her research. 

Out of a total of 388 valid calls made in 2018 and 2019 (the first two years after the hotline began operating), just over 56 percent of callers were seeking general information about the safe haven process. But less than 13 percent called specifically to discuss a pregnancy, and less than 10 percent asked for instructions on how to safely surrender an infant.

Only 42 total calls included any information on what happened next, but Douglas reported that around half of those callers opted for adoption rather than relinquishment. 

“We just don’t have good data on any of this, which is unfortunate, I think,” she said. “Because when you pass legislation to address a social problem, if you’re not looking at the before and after, you have no idea about the impacts of your law.” 

The lack of good evidence has led other researchers to describe safe haven laws as “crime control theater” — measures with broad support that ultimately do little to address the issues they purport to solve. And while Douglas emphasized that few people oppose safe haven laws — whether they’re advocates or legislators — some child welfare advocates in Virginia are concerned about the possible repercussions of expanding the law.

Betty Wade Coyle, executive director emeritus of the child welfare group Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads, pointed out that safe haven laws only offer parents a pleading in abuse or neglect cases. In other words, parents can cite the law as a defense in legal proceedings, but it doesn’t stop prosecutors from opening an investigation or pressing charges. 

Virginia’s child welfare regulations also require state employees to respond to safe haven relinquishments as physical neglect cases, she said. So while the law is often advertised as a way for parents to surrender children anonymously and with no legal repercussions, that’s not always the case. Coyle said she’s aware of one hospital who recognized a patient during an attempted safe haven relinquishment and called child protective services. The agency later called the woman’s parents and asked them to take the child.

“They should have studied this before they jumped right into this,” she said. “Because there could be unintended consequences.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

MORE FROM AUTHOR