Let facts guide child neglect, abuse policies

Seventy percent of the roughly 1,600 children who die in the U.S. each year from abuse or neglect are under the age of three.

Those most likely to die from neglect or at the hands of an abuser are infants not yet a year old.

These and other statistics are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And sadly, according to national officials, many more cases go unreported. Because of that, in 2014, the agency estimated that one out of every seven children will experience some form of abuse or neglect.

This is the type of information Iowa lawmakers should use when considering new or expanded prevention laws. Instead, a well-intentioned update of Iowa’s Safe Haven law that allows infants to be voluntarily relinquished at hospitals and other facilities sets an another arbitrary time limit.

Safe Haven
A safe haven sign hangs in the entrance of Helen G. Nassif Center for Women’s & Children’s Health Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids after a baby boy was dropped off at the hospital’s main registration desk under the state’s “safe haven” law earlier in the day. The newborn was in a basket with a note attached saying “safe haven baby,” referencing the Iowa law that allows unwanted babies 14 days or younger to be left at any health facility with no questions asked. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Under Senate File 360 infants up to 30 days old could be given to medical or emergency services personnel with no legal repercussions, doubling the state window of opportunity for such dire action.

Every state has some version of the Safe Haven law, although time frames vary. Nearly all were passed in response to news reports of newborns being left to die in toilets, trash dumpsters or, in the case of Iowa, a snowbank. State officials say about 20 infants have been taken in since the law began in 2002.

And while I understand Safe Haven laws aren’t without critics — conservatives concerned about increased promiscuity, adoption advocates worried children can’t access genetic histories, men’s rights groups uneasy with lax regulations to inform or gain paternal consent, etc. — I remain mostly supportive. But I also wonder if this well-intentioned system is the best we can do, and acknowledge that the laws’ inherent secrecy makes it difficult to determine who is using the policies and why.

Does postpartum depression or other behavioral illness play a role? Is the woman coerced to relinquish a child she would otherwise keep, or forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term without medical care? Is there a father or other family member that should be contacted? Does the woman need other assistance?

Safe Haven laws require no answers.

And, yes, I understand the thought process of wanting to help or save “even one child.” But if that is the driving impetus behind such laws, then why rely on arbitrary time limits when statistics show instances of death from abuse and neglect remain elevated for a child’s first year or more?

A better option might be digging into the root causes of child abuse and neglect to develop policies that address known risk factors.

All of us, but especially lawmakers, have opportunities to strengthen economic supports for families and provide quality early childhood education, both of which combat abuse and neglect.

Unlike arbitrary and possibly ineffective Safe Haven laws, comprehensive approaches take political will and taxpayer investment.

As state government gravitates toward policies that limit access to affordable birth control and reduce consumer and worker protections, we should prepare and invest now for the long-term ramifications.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 1, 2017. Photo credit: Brian Ray/The Gazette