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Sixteen years ago, Texas passed a new law that would be copied across the nation. The Safe Haven law, also known as the Baby Moses law, gives parents a safe and legal way to abandon a newborn and avoid prosecution if they drop the baby off at a fire station or a hospital emergency room.
“There had been a real rash of abandonments that previous year,” said state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, the author of the original law in 1999, along with state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “Prior to this legislation, if you abandoned your child, even at a hospital or a safe place, you could be prosecuted for abandonment.”
“Safe Haven” signs are now common sights at the front of hospitals and fire stations around the country.
Since the original law was passed, a new breed of health provider known as freestanding emergency centers has emerged and quickly spread. In Texas, there are now more than 150 such centers, which provide emergency care but are separate from traditional hospitals. In a handful of instances in recent years, a person abandoned a baby at one of the centers, according to Brad Shields, executive director of the Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers.
“A mom or a dad or a parent knew of the law, had heard of Baby Moses because of education efforts and just assumed that our emergency room would have been one that would have been included in theses protections,” Shields said.
In each case, Shields said the center alerted the proper authorities and gave the newborn proper medical attention. Still, the centers were uncomfortable with people assuming they were part of the Safe Haven program when they technically weren’t. Since 2004, 79 newborns have been left with emergency providers under the state's Baby Moses law.
Association members brought the issue to lawmakers. In response, Nelson and Morrison authored Senate Bill 1279, which adds freestanding emergency centers to the list of places covered under the Safe Haven law, starting on Sept. 1.
Morrison said the centers already meet the same qualifications of other entities included in the original Safe Haven law, including being open 24 hours and staffed by emergency-trained personnel.
She added that the new law will clear up confusion and ensure that those attempting to give up a newborn under the program will get the legal protections they expect to receive.
“The intent of this law is to let the parent know the police will not be called and that they will not be prosecuted for abandonment or neglect provided the newborn does not show signs of abuse,” Morrison said.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story omitted the name of state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the lead author for Senate Bill 1279.