ANNAPOLIS — Tanisha Montague was 19 when she gave birth to a baby girl in a bathtub.
Seven hours later she left her Montgomery County apartment with her daughter wrapped in a blanket and put her in a trash can, where the infant was found alive just before garbage collectors arrived.
Last year, Montague’s highly publicized case prompted some Maryland lawmakers to try to join the a rush of “safe haven” laws allowing parents to anonymously leave their babies at a designated safe place with no questions asked.
Safe haven legislation failed last year, but is back before the General Assembly this year. Critics of the bill question whether mothers like Montague will take advantage of it because it does not provide appropriate funding for publicity, which has jump-started the legislation in other states.
Promoting the law through costly publicity has helped, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-five states have passed safe haven laws in the last three years. Those with advertising campaigns have been the most successful.
“Because the issue is so complex in terms of the situation for the affected young woman, who is often so desperate and at a difficult psychological point, it is very hard to know precisely what will make the difference between her going to a safe place versus not,” said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D- Montgomery. “We just don’t have enough experience.” Grosfeld, House safe haven sponsor, and Sen. Leo Green, D-Prince George’s, Senate sponsor, have provided no money for the costly campaigns needed to bring attention to the law in other states.
The two sponsored similar legislation last year but an unresolved debate about whether often-unmanned firehouses should be included as safe havens killed the bill.
Green’s version listed only hospitals as safe haven locations. Grosfeld’s bill designated police stations, fire stations, social service agencies and hospitals.
“There are times that the firehouse may be open but there is not anyone there,” said James E. Malone Jr., D-Baltimore County, a lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department. “With a hospital there is someone there 24 hours a day.”
Grosfeld, who plans to submit her version of the bill next week, said she will include firehouses again this year and is hoping to get the approval of firefighters’ organizations. The bill will specify that a person must be present in order for the firehouse to be a safe haven.
The debate about firehouses may continue to be an obstacle for the bill this session. The lack of state funding for publicity may pose an even larger problem.
Texas, the first state to institute a safe haven law, saw 12 babies abandoned after the law passed. After a private foundation donated money for a public awareness campaign, at least five infants were taken to designated safe places. New Jersey’s Legislature appropriated $500,000 along with its safe haven law for a massive advertising campaign: “No blame. No names. No shame.” Six babies were dropped off there last year. “A lot of these states passed the legislation so quickly they did not think about allocating money for prevention programs or advertising campaigns,” said Joyce Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Child Welfare League of America. Grosfeld said her hope is state and individual county agencies will allocate money from their budgets to publicize the law as they do with programs for domestic violence victims. But even in states with well-funded publicity campaigns, it’s hard to tell how well the law is working. Most states do not compile statistics on babies abandoned in public places. Sketchy statistics have been assembled in a survey conducted by the NCSL.
“There is a need for clean data to determine if it’s a growing problem, if it’s a trend,” said Nina Williams-Mbengue, a policy specialist who is following infant abandonment for the state legislatures’ organization. “The states can barely track it. Their statutes didn’t require it.”
The proposal in Maryland also does not require agencies to count the number of infants dropped at safe havens. The closest national estimate is a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based on a computer search of news items. In 1991 there were 65 accounts of abandoned babies and 105 in 1998.
Johnson, of the Child Welfare League, also criticizes the safe haven legislation’s disregard for the mother’s mental state. Mothers who decide to give up their babies for adoption are given counseling and other services. Little is known about mothers who decide to abandon their newborns.
“What’s going on with mom?” Johnson said. “It makes you question why folks are falling through the cracks. Why didn’t they go somewhere and get help?”
But Grosfeld and politicians across the country have said saving one infant or one distraught mother worth it.
A neighbor who heard the newborn crying saved Montague’s baby, but the teen-ager was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted murder. “The indications do seem to be its working,” Grosfeld said. “It’s not having any kind of negative effect.” – 30 – CNS-1-18-02