Policy & Practice: Advocacy
March 17, 2009
The Honorable Elizabeth Coulson
220-N Stratton Office Building
Springfield, IL 62706
Re: HB3925, Amendments to Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act
Dear Representative Coulson:
I am writing on behalf of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute to strongly urge you to reconsider HB3925, amending the Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act. Based on both research and experience, we can say with considerable confidence that the revisions the Illinois House is considering (i.e., allowing anonymous hospital births and relinquishments and expanding the time limit for legally abandoning a baby from 7 to 30 days) will not save infants' lives - but, instead, could increase the number of anonymously deserted children, strip biological fathers of their rights, cause lifelong grief to growing numbers of birthmothers, divest adoptive parents of vital health information with which to raise their children, and deprive additional adoptees of their medical, genealogical and historical information.
In the way of quick background, the Adoption Institute is a nonpartisan national nonprofit that is independent of any constituency, group or cause. It does not make money from adoption and has no financial or other vested interest in this issue. The Institute is the pre-eminent policy, research and education organization in its field; its mission is to improve the lives of everyone touched by adoption - especially children - by promoting better laws, policies and "best practices" based on sound research.
A few years ago, we conducted a groundbreaking study of "safe haven" laws such as the one in Illinois; the report (available at http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/whowe/Last%20report.pdf) raised serious concerns about their effectiveness and consequences. It concluded there is no evidence these statutes are working as their proponents had hoped, principally because they do not address the causes of the problem. The research also indicates that these laws have negative, unintended consequences -- including encouraging women to conceal pregnancies and abandon their infants, thus undermining adoption through established legal procedures.
It is clear that, in Illinois as in other states, legally sanctioned infant abandonment has not put a dent into the problem this approach was intended to address: the unsafe desertion of newborns in trash cans, bathrooms and other horrible places where their lives are put in jeopardy. Indeed, as reported by Illinois' Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, from the law's enactment in August 2001 through 2008, there have been 48 safe relinquishments and 54 unsafe abandonments (with 27 deaths). Research indicates the flaw in these laws is based on the fact that women who take such drastic actions (almost always with newborns, not babies who are 72 hours old, much less ones who are 30 days old) are in distress and/or denial and act in panic, rather than thinking cogently. These factors lead women to give birth alone and often at home, precisely because they lack the presence of mind to plan to get to a hospital.
So the number of unsafely abandoned children is not falling, nor will it fall with HB3925's amendments -- but more girls and women will be persuaded that deserting their babies is a socially sanctioned (and even encouraged) response to a crisis pregnancy; at the very least, it's a terrible lesson in not taking personal responsibility. Moreover, it circumvents established adoption and child-welfare practices, deprives all parties of the opportunity for counseling or exchanging medical information, eliminates waiting periods, starkly sends the signal that fathers have no rights or say in the decision, and allows child abusers time to let wounds heal and cover their tracks. HB3925's amendments exacerbate the problem by seeming to limit the provision of relevant information about the Act and its implications to the relinquishing person.
For all those reasons and others, I respectfully urge you to reject this well-intentioned but highly problematic legislation. In fact, I would ask you to consider addressing the flaws in the state's safe haven law, by implementing the Adoption Institute's policy recommendations:
- Expand pregnancy prevention efforts, including education and relevant services;
- Enhance outreach and access to support services, including confidential and nondirective pregnancy options counseling, crisis intervention, and medical and financial assistance;
- Increase education about and access to confidential, low/no-cost prenatal and hospital care;
- Educate parents, social workers, guidance counselors, nurses and physicians about the signs of pregnancy concealment and denial;
- Amend "safe haven" laws to guard against negative outcomes by:
- Replacing anonymity with guaranteed confidentiality;
- Ensuring only parents with legal custody can abandon an infant;
- Providing mechanisms for a non-abandoning parent to gain custody;
- Requiring "safe haven" facilities to provide the abandoning person with information on options counseling and the implications of abandonment on parental rights;
- Facilitating the acquisition of medical information, at abandonment and in the future;
- Providing a process for parents to reclaim infants within a reasonable designated period, and informing abandoning adults of the procedure at the time of abandonment;
- Requiring searches for non-abandoning parent/relatives within a specified timeframe;
- Providing for expedited termination of parental rights, and timely transfer of custody to the state child welfare department for adoption, once reclaiming period has expired;
- Mandating assessment of the law's effectiveness with data collection, including number of abandonments (legal and illegal) and disposition of subsequent infant placements;
- Training personnel at safe haven sites, including in referrals for options counseling; and
- Requiring routine reports to the legislature analyzing the law's efficacy and consequences.
Please read our report on safe havens and consider its findings, which have been borne out in practice in Illinois and across the country. Conclusions identical to those reached by our researchers have been reported by child-welfare advocates across the political spectrum, by academic institutions, as well as by nonpartisan organizations such as the Child Welfare League of America.
Please contact me at 617-332-8944 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, need more information, or want to discuss any aspect of this issue. Thank you very much for your consideration.