Infant Abandonment and Safe-Haven Laws

March 14, 2019 | Health System Risk Management


Stories of infant abandonment are found throughout history. Many Americans today are familiar with both fictionalized and real-world accounts of babies left on church doorsteps in the middle of the night, or left in bathroom stalls by teenagers on prom night. And yet, it is highly possible that many people, including hospital staff, are unfamiliar with how to handle this situation in a healthcare setting (Cesario).

Infant abandonment is the act of leaving alone a child of less than 12 months of age, with the intent of absolving onesel​f of parental duties (IHA). Laws are on the books in every U.S. state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., designating locations—typically hospitals or other emergency service providers—at which an infant can be left without fear of liability for the parent (Children's Bureau).

But because this event remains rare, staff may be unsure what to do when presented with an infant. Healthcare facilities must have comprehensive procedures and policies in place to respond to infant abandonment, and they must provide staff with education and training on the subject. All staff—including housekeeping and security—must know, at minimum, to accept a baby and transport him or her to the emergency department (ED) immediately. (Neal)

Despite several bipartisan attempts since the turn of the 21st century to pass such legislation, no law provides for safe-haven protections at the federal level ( While all states have safe-haven laws, provider responsibilities vary by locale (Children's Bureau). This guidance article discusses the similarities among these laws, as well as a few specifics. However, it is essential for organizations to understand the unique requirements of the safe-haven law in the state or states where they operate.

The differences are minute, yet they do affect policy. For example, 26 states and Puerto Rico stipulate that parents may relinquish the infant only to a hospital, emergency medical service (EMS) provider, or other healthcare facility. In 27 states, fire stations are also designated as safe-haven sites. Personnel at police stations may accept infants in 25 states. In 5 states, emergency medical personnel responding to 911 calls may accept an infant. And in 5 states, abandoned infants may be left at churches, as long as church personnel are present at the time. Complicating matters further, in only some of the states that allow the infant to be accepted somewhere that is not a medical facility do laws stipulate that the infant must be transferred to a hospital as soon as possible. (Children's...

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