While child abandonment is a crime that carries a penalty of up to four years in jail, prosecutors recognize the grim truth that an abandoned baby is better than the alternative: At least two unwanted babies were found dead in New York City last year, and another so far this year.
In an effort to prevent such tragedies, state officials enacted the Abandoned Infant Protection Act in 2000, which allows new parents to avoid prosecution if they leave their unwanted babies someplace safe within five days after giving birth.
Lawmakers didn’t have a bus stop in mind when drafting the law. But that’s where a Bronx woman left her baby last month.
Police combed the neighborhood searching for the woman, eventually uncovering her identity. The woman, however, won’t face charges, according to Tim Jaccard. Jaccard is a police medic who helped bring the issue of abandoned babies to the attention of lawmakers. He founded a non-profit organization, the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, which runs an outreach program that includes a telephone hotline to advise panicked parents how to handle an unwanted birth.
Jaccard said he knows more details about the woman in the Bronx case, but would only say that the child was about three years old â€“ far older than what the Abandoned Infant Protection Act had in mind. City authorities, however, have reached a consensus that, if the child is not harmed, it is better not to treat the mother as a criminal. Rather than prosecute every abandonment, officials instead try to publicize the safe haven law.
“We don’t really have a cut-off age,” said Tamiko Amaker, a Bronx assistant DA in the child abuse and sex crimes unit. In the Bronx, Amaker estimated that, on average, fewer than five babies a year are abandoned in public places. Citywide, the Administration for Child Services reported that, in the past four years, 18 abandoned babies younger than three months have entered into foster care.
Deaths appear to be rarer, although apparently no city or state agency keeps statistics. The saddest cases are not easily forgotten: A dead baby was found in a Brooklyn trash truck last July.
“It’s just a horrible situation. This act is trying to prevent that, That’s why our office chooses not to prosecute,” Amaker said, stressing the importance of the child not being harmed in deciding whether or not to file charges.
When a newborn dies of unnatural causes, however, it is often treated as a serious crime. In January a 13-year-old Bronx girl allegedly pushed her baby out of the window of her second-story apartment, minutes after giving birth alone in her room. Only a few blocks away there was a hospital, a safe haven where the girl could have legally and anonymously left the baby. Instead, she now faces second degree murder charges in New York Family Court. Although she is not being tried as an adult, she could still face up to five years of restrictive placement, which would include time in a jail-like detention center, with an option to extend punishment until she turns 21.
The details are tragic, but not shocking to those who have studied these types of deaths. “What you see is a profound denial on the part of the pregnant woman, a profound denial that she is in fact pregnantâ€¦and needs to put a plan into place,” said Michelle Oberman a law professor at Santa Clara University in California who has co-authored a book about neonaticide and written extensively on the subject.
Typically, the mother lacks “a purposefulness of action” that might differ from other murder cases, noted Oberman. (Oberman’s observation that a dead baby should not be very difficult to dispose of without getting caught might suggest an underreporting of the problem.) In reports of the cases, many of the mothers report acting in a panic. For example, the Bronx teen reportedly had kept her pregnancy hidden from her family, and she told police how she acted out of fear that her baby would cry out and wake her parents. The baby lay in an alley for 14 hours before the mother’s 15-year-old boyfriend placed the body in a bag and left it at a nearby church.
While some point to the lack of definitive statistics and wonder whether the abandoned infant law works, Jaccard and proponents say if the law saves one child, it’s worth it. All but four states have safe haven laws, Jaccard said, adding that last year nine mothers who called his group’s hotline legally relinquished their babies to safe havens.