Case Shines Light On Maryland’s Safe Haven Law

BERLIN – Questions swirling around the Christy Freeman case have inevitably turned to the alternatives the accused had in the event of an unwanted child, including Maryland’s four-year-old Safe Haven law meant to prevent abandonment and murder of newborns.

Freeman, 37, has been charged with first-, second-, and third-degree murder after delivering a stillborn male infant lat week. Prosecutors and police say they have reason to believe the death of the fetus was deliberately caused, not a natural outcome. Police are also investigating three sets of skeletal fetal remains found on Freeman’s property.

The Safe Haven law, passed by Maryland lawmakers in 2003, allows parents of a newborn up to three days old to give the child up anonymously to a responsible person, law enforcement or a hospital, with no questions asked.

That responsible person, or law enforcement agency, is then tasked with taking to the child to a local hospital.            The hospital will examine the surrendered child. Infants are given any necessary medical care and then turned over to the local social services department for adoption or foster placement.

The law gives parents a way to achieve a better outcome for the child, said Steve Berry, manager of In-house Services for Maryland’s Department of Human Resources (DHR).

“If one person used it and saves the life of one child, it’s worth it,” Berry said. “Five or six children have been relinquished under the Safe Haven law since its inception. There may be more than that but it’s not necessarily reported.”

Francis Scott, co-chair of a Safe Haven law summit held in Annapolis this past April, agreed tracking is a tough task.

“It can be difficult to track because of the anonymity provisions of the law,” Scott said. “Sometimes [a surrender] is publicized, sometimes it’s not.”

While there is no indication that Freeman would have taken advantage of the Safe Haven law or that she was even aware of it, a reliable source indicates that Freeman has given up two babies for adoption in the recent past.

“There is no indication that every mother in a desperate situation is going to use it,” said Scott of the law.

Berry said that the law was enacted to give new mothers and fathers an option other than abandoning the child.

Parents who do so are often teenagers in denial about the pregnancy and do not want anyone to know they have given birth, said Worcester County Department of Social Services Director Pete Buesgens.

The law is intended to prevent tragedies such as the case of a teenage couple who abandoned their newborn child in a dumpster outside a motel in the late 1990s. That child died.

“The law was really intended for those people who might want to hide the birth. For example, a young teenager, who doesn’t want anyone to know she’s been pregnant,” Buesgens said.

No babies have been surrendered under the Safe Haven law in Worcester County since it went into effect, Buesgens said.

“Children who are surrendered for adoption tend to occur in more typical, traditional ways on the shore,” he said.  “Frequently they’ll just utilize a private adoption agency.”

Parents generally make contact with social services for help first.

“Parents come to realize they’re not capable of raising a child, they’ll come to the agency and say, we need assistance, we need services,” Buesgens said.

Catholic Charities and Children’s Choice handle private adoptions, providing counseling and legal information on terminating parental rights.

“Most of those people tend to be more stable and secure people who don’t feel the need to hide a pregnancy,” Buesgens said.

When it comes to abandoned children and new mothers in desperate situations, there is no profile, Scott said.

Although the Safe Haven law is four years old, the word has not gotten out to all the people it needs to reach, Berry said, because the state legislature has not provided any funds for outreach or advertisement.

“It gets most of its publicity after a tragedy,” Berry said.

Written materials, posters and the like have been distributed to hospitals and schools, and two public service announcements can be seen soon on Maryland Public Television, he said.

Norris West, public relations officer for DHR, said that the department would like to saturate media with information on the law.

“We don’t have the kind of budget you’d have for something like AIDS, for instance,” West said.

Traditional advertising methods do not always reach the target demographic of high school and college students, Berry said.

According to West, the department is looking into using online social marketing networks, like Facebook and MySpace, to get the word out. The DHR website also offers information on the Safe Haven law.

Scott said that one reason the organization she volunteers for, Junior League of Annapolis, took up the cause was the lack of advertising dollars to publicize the law.

“It doesn’t matter if they don’t even know about it,” Scott said.

Berry said, “The good news is, it’s very infrequent. We don’t think a lot of children are being left in inappropriate places.”