“It is impossible to know the number of infants killed or illegally abandoned at birth. No official reporting requirements exist, but conservative estimates claim that in the United States, 150-300 infants are killed within twenty-four hours of life and that over 100 infants are illegally abandoned. Beginning in 1999, in an effort to stem the problem of neonaticide and illegal abandonment, states began enacting laws to legalize abandonment.”
Susan Ayres, a Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University wrote the above in an article in the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law in February 2009.
Just two months later, former state Senator Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) was writing his own article on the subject in the old Bay View Compass. When I worked in the state Senate Plale was one of the all-around good guys (just wish he had been a Republican).
In every politician’s career there are pieces of legislation that stand out because they make positive change in the world. Periodically, I am asked by my constituents which law I have worked on that truly made a difference in people’s lives. One of my proudest achievements as a legislator was the passage of Wisconsin’s safe haven law, which I authored. It was an effort that reached across party lines and political agendas to protect Wisconsin newborns.
Wisconsin’s safe haven law was passed in 2001 and received broad support throughout the legislature. At that time, there were increasing instances of babies being abandoned in unsafe places. I worked with my colleagues to come up with a sensible solution to protect abandoned newborns. Under this law, a parent can surrender an unharmed baby within 72 hours of birth to medical or law enforcement personnel without fear of legal prosecution. Law enforcement is prohibited from attempting to ascertain the identity of parents who relinquish their child in accordance with the safe haven law. By invoking this law, parental rights are surrendered in the eyes of the court and the child becomes a ward of the state. The child is then eligible for adoption.
We have all heard the heartbreaking stories of young desperate parents abandoning their newborn child shortly after birth. However, since implementation of the safe haven law, cases of deceased abandoned newborns have become rare in Wisconsin. Newborn abandonment still occurs but babies are being left in secure environments.
Plale authored the safe haven legislation along with former Republican state Representative Sue Jeskewitz of Menomonee Falls.
As Susan Ayres also wrote in the previously mentioned article:
“Data supports the common-sense conclusion that safe haven laws prove effective when they are promoted by active public awareness campaigns. States and non-profit agencies should increase efforts to educate the public about safe haven laws as one option of many for unwanted pregnancy. Safe haven laws provide women another option to exercise their autonomy and to do the right thing at the right time.”
Fast forward to the present. After action taken this week the state Legislature has approved a Safe Havens bill that requires a school board that provides a human growth and development instructional program to include in the instructional program an
explanation of the process under current law for a parent of a newborn to relinquish custody of the newborn to a law enforcement officer, emergency medical services practitioner, or hospital staff member.
Both the state Senate and Assembly approved Senate Bill 555 on unanimous voice votes this week. The bill now goes to Gov. Evers for his consideration.
One of the authors of the bill is state Representative Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) who testified on the bill last month before the Assembly Committee on Education:
In Green County earlier this year, a newborn child named Harper was reported missing. After a search and investigation by authorities, Harper was found deceased in a remote wooded area with a gunshot wound to her forehead.
Harper was born on January 5th at her mother’s home. Following her birth, the father allegedly took the baby and was going to arrange for Harper to be taken to an adoption agency. Tragically, Harper never made it to the adoption agency. The father has been charged in connection with the death. The case is still pending before the court.
It is unclear if Harper’s parents were aware of the state’s Safe Haven law. Today’s proposal would make changes to the health class curricula to include information about the state’s Safe Haven law. This bill does not affect a school board’s ability to choose whether to offer health education to students. It simply adds education about Safe Haven laws to the curriculum if the school board decides to offer a health class program to students.
The bill has the support of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials, Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, Wisconsin Association of School Personnel Administrators, and the Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services.
The question now is, what will Evers do?