Family Law

Safe Haven for Baby Dumping - The Nebraska Hiccup

Baby dumping is a controversial topic. On one hand, states want to prevent the abandonment of babies. On the other hand, states recognize that some mothers may be so desperate to get rid of their unwanted infants that they may end up injuring the baby. As a result, states have passed safe haven laws.

What's a Safe Haven Law?

A safe haven law, known in some states as Baby Moses law, allows parents to leave their uninjured infants in certain designated places, such as hospitals or police stations, without suffering any criminal consequences. Parents remain anonymous and can't be arrested or sued for child abandonment.

What's the Purpose of Safe Haven Laws?

These laws were initially intended to protect infants of pregnant teenagers who may leave their babies in dumpsters and streets. However, they apply to parents of all ages.

The Critics

Each state has its own version of a safe harbor law. Nonetheless, the concept remains controversial. Critics say these laws encourage irresponsibility and threaten the lives of infants and their mothers, who often give birth without medical attention. Also, infants are left without an identity and may never know their families or biological father.

Critics say these laws encourage women to conceal their pregnancies and abandon their infants when they could've turned to other options, such as adoption.

The Supporters

On the other end of the spectrum, supporters claim these laws actually save lives because they encourage parents to leave their infants safely in designated places equipped to help the children, rather than aborting, killing or discarding children in unsafe places such as trash cans.

The Nebraska Hiccup

While most states offer a safe haven for those who abandon infants up to a certain age, the original Nebraska law had no such age limit. This resulted in absurd circumstances beyond the intent of the law. Parents abandoned their problematic teenagers at local hospitals, and enjoyed a legal protection under this law.

In four months, more than 30 children were left at Nebraska hospitals. None were infants. Most of the children were teenagers. And most parents crossed over state lines to take advantage of Nebraska's protection.

Faced with more than three dozen unwanted teenagers, Nebraska legislatures recognized this unintended result and fixed the law. The current law only offers a safe haven to parents of infants that are under 30 days old.

The Quakenbush

However, the Nebraska problem and safe haven laws display the inability of parents and states to deal with troubled teenagers. In recent news, the plight of Sue and Avery Quakenbush was revisited. The couple dropped off their teenage son at a Nebraska hospital last year. They explained they left him because "abandoning him seemed to be the fastest way to get him badly needed access to mental health services."1 Their son remains in state custody.

Abandoning teenagers is different from abandoning infants. Both the children's and parent's identity is obvious and can't be hidden. While the Quakenbush's were able to use Nebraska's safe harbor protection for abandoning their son, they couldn't remain anonymous.

The Quakenbush case is a result of the faulty Nebraska law since updated. However, it raises the difficult question of the role of parents who've abandoned their child for other reasons.

In any event, while safe haven laws continue to exist nationwide, they no longer cover teenagers. Parents must use other services to help with their problematic teens.


1Dionne Searcey, Nebraska Couple Wants Gag Order Lifted to Discuss Son's Problems, The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 12, 2009, available at, last accessed Nov. 11, 2009.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Is there a safe haven law in our state, and what types of protection does it provide for both parents and children?
  • How do adoption laws coordinate with a safe haven law? For example, if a newborn is given up under a safe haven law, how are a father's rights protected if a mother gave up a child without his knowledge?
  • What are the exceptions under our state's safe haven law for a parent giving up a child, with respect to any criminal charges related to leaving a child, and privacy protections for a relinquishing parent?
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