In reaction to several babies left abandoned in public places in North Jersey this month, state officials are pushing for greater awareness of New Jersey’s Safe Haven laws.
The problem? Not enough people — both residents and professionals — know how they should act under the law.
“It’s still needed. Even if it just saves one child, it’s something that’s worth having,” said Karen Sharkey, registered nurse and administrative director of emergency medicine, maternal child health and respiratory services at Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.
New Jersey’s Safe Haven Infant Protection Act was created in 2000 to give anyone the chance to safely and anonymously surrender a newborn less than 30 days old without fear of prosecution and to decrease the rise of illegally abandoned babies in public places.
Four babies in the state were left abandoned this month on train tracks, in a vacant building, near a home and on someone’s front porch. Only one baby boy survived while three others, including the most recent infant found in Trenton on April 23, died, authorities said.
Only 67 babies have been surrendered since Safe Haven’s inception despite it being in effect for more than 17 years.
Health care and social services experts say lack of awareness is one explanation. All hospital emergency rooms, police stations, fire stations and ambulance squads staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week are required to follow Safe Haven protocols.
Participation is not optional, but officials from several emergency departments in South Jersey said they were not acting under that law.
Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans said the department had Safe Haven signage and training at stations for years until a miscommunication with the county put it all to a halt.
“If someone were to provide or help with training, we’d be happy to get involved,” he said. “Of course, we’ve had older kids come in and need help, and we’ve had to get the authorities involved. But we would definitely embrace the Safe Haven program if someone partnered with us on training.”
Barbara May, director of policy and program development at the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, said confusion over participation may stem from a lack of state outreach or a lack of experience with the law.
“People in charge then have retired, and because they rarely get an occasion to act on the law, they may not be fully aware,” she said.
Sharkey said the Somers Point hospital has a policy that follows Safe Haven law, which orders receivers to let the person remain anonymous by not asking for identification, ask for any information about medical history and the birth, and offer that person medical assistance as they remain anonymous.
Shore employees followed that policy several years ago when a young teen surrendered her baby under the law. Sharkey said they were able to treat the mother anonymously and care for the healthy baby for the 21-day window in which the mother or a family member could regain custody after a surrender.
That baby was eventually adopted through state procedures, Sharkey said.
Jason Butkowski, spokesman at the state Department of Children and Families, said a new Safe Haven outreach and advertising campaign this summer aims to reach audiences such as women ages 14 to 35 using social media, online and broadcasting.
For the past 17 years, information about Safe Haven has consisted primarily of brochures, posters, flyers and bus advertisements.
“Our intent is to speak to people where they are at, not just rely on the fact that they would have to be at the right place at the right time to get information about Safe Haven,” he said.
State officials also plan to contact all Safe Haven locations to verify they know how to act under the law and have signage outside designating the building as a Safe Haven location.
“We’re going to take all these locations and put them into a database and create a web map locator so that people can look up where to go,” he said. “We’re also creating signs that can be used by places that are not Safe Havens so that someone doesn’t leave a child there.”
May said women may chose to surrender their babies for a number of reasons, including teen pregnancy, lack of shelter, an unsafe home environment, lack of family members or if they suffer from a mental or physical illness, including substance use disorder, which is affecting thousands of residents in the current opioid epidemic.
“It’s important for everyone to know what your state law is,” Sharkey said. “They differ between states. I happen to know because my daughter had a Safe Haven baby, so I was very intimately involved in that process in Pennsylvania. The window of time to regain custody of the baby is different where you are.
“Incidents are rare, but we as health care providers, we get excited when we have one because we know there are parents out there who want these children, so what a great thing we can all do,” Sharkey said.