This Is Us Reminds Us That Safe Haven Laws Are Necessary

by Christine Burke
NBC Universal

In 2013, my community was horrified and saddened when a mother gave birth to a baby in a bathroom stall of a local bar and left the infant behind. The details were surreal: She arrived to the bar with friends and started having labor contractions. Because she had not told her friends that she was pregnant, she quietly excused herself from the table and locked herself in a bathroom stall where she proceeded to deliver a healthy baby. For reasons known only to her, she left the child behind and returned to the table of waiting friends. Tragically, the baby did not survive.

A young life was over before it started, and our community was devastated and outraged.

How could this happen in a community with excellent hospitals, doctors, and access to quality medical care?

How could a woman deliver a child and leave the baby behind (in a bathroom!) as if nothing had happened?

And most importantly, how could we work together as a community to make sure another infant didn’t suffer the same tragic fate?

All of these questions were asked repeatedly during the months in which the mother was indicted and tried for the death of her child. Newspapers and local television stations plastered her face across the screen, and the public outcry was strong. She was vilified, demonized, and though she clearly had mental health struggles, the message was clear: Women who don’t feel ready for motherhood, regardless of the reason, are evil.

Given the way this woman was portrayed in the media, it’s no wonder that women are frightened when they realize that they might not be cut out for motherhood. When we with our pitchforks pass judgment and crucify a woman who obviously needs help, what kind of message does that send to a teen who is scared to tell her parents she’s pregnant?

People in my community talked about how callous and depraved her actions were, and even though I was repulsed at the details of the gruesome case, I kept coming back to another question: Did this mother know about safe-haven laws? And if she did, would she have found herself in that bathroom stall, feeling as though that was her only option?

Safe-haven laws, or laws that are designed to protect infants from abandonment and death at the hands of parents who feel unready for parenthood, have recently been in the forefront of the news, thanks, in part, to the success of the show This Is Us. If you are unfamiliar with the show (read: living under a rock and missing out on the greatest show on television ever), one of the main characters, Randall Pearson, was adopted into his family after his biological father left him at a fire station when he was a few days old. Through the magic of Hollywood storytelling, Randall finds his way to a loving home because his biological father made the selfless decision to give Randall a chance at a better life.

And though it can be argued that This Is Us depicts a sanitized, Hollywood version of an agonizing decision to relinquish a child (and I would certainly agree), the fact is, the show is a stark reminder that safe-haven laws are necessary now, more than ever. And it’s an opportunity to not only educate yourself on your state’s safe-haven laws, but also to get the word out to your community about your local safe-haven statutes.

In the state of Pennsylvania, for example, anyone can relinquish a child under 28 days old, no questions asked, as long as the child doesn’t show any signs of abuse or a crime. Simply put, in Pennsylvania, a mother or family member will not be prosecuted if the child is brought to a designated safe-haven crib or police station.

According to Carol Michaels of the Safe Haven Lehigh Valley chapter, the infant can be surrendered anonymously and without judgment. The parent or family member has the option of filling out an anonymous questionnaire about the baby’s health or simply giving verbal information about the baby before leaving the safe-haven space. The child will be placed in protective custody, and the parent or family member is free to leave, without fear of prosecution.

To be clear, safe-haven laws are designed to protect infants from harm or neglect when born to families not ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. While many will have an opinion about a mother who doesn’t feel ready for motherhood, safe-haven committee members, volunteers, and caregivers want to get the message out that this community service is just that: a safe haven for a new mother who is panicked and feeling alone. Safe-haven spaces are judgment-free, and the goal is simple: to give an unwanted newborn the best possible chance to survive and thrive.

Many also assume that parents who have used the safe-haven laws in their state are young, unwed, scared teenage mothers. And though the anonymity portion of the law makes it difficult to compile exact demographics, Michaels states that infants are relinquished across all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. In fact, through the work of safe-haven chapters across Pennsylvania, she confirmed that 31 children have been surrendered to Safe Haven since 2003.

Thirty-one real-life Randall Pearson stories and there are hundreds more across the country. To date, all 50 states have a safe-haven law that protects infants from abandonment under duress. While This Is Us has started the dialogue about safe-haven laws, it’s up to us to keep the conversation going.

Talk to your teens openly about the importance of contraception and also inform them about safe-haven laws. Your teen may not have an unwanted pregnancy, but they may have a friend who will. Knowledge is power.

Support your local safe-haven chapters by following them on social media and spreading their messages, and by supporting their efforts with financial donations and volunteer time.

Most of all, be a safe haven with your speech when you hear about tragic stories like the one in my community. Be a beacon of help for someone who needs it the most. That’s how we can help prevent these tragedies in the future.

Thank you, This Is Us, for reminding us that the smallest voices deserve a safe place to land.

If you are in need of safe-haven services or know someone who is, please click this link to find useful information to help you find the safe-haven space near you. You are not alone, and help is nearby.