After abortion ban, a push for more ‘safe haven’ resources to help mothers surrender newborns

Chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Brian Hendricks closes the Missouri station's safe haven baby box before a news conference Monday at the Mehlville Fire District Station 2 in South St. Louis County, Mo. A Tennessee lawmaker wants to install similar boxes in every county in the state to address what he thinks will be an increase in newborn abandonments. (Christine Tannous/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
Chief of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Brian Hendricks closes the Missouri station's safe haven baby box before a news conference Monday at the Mehlville Fire District Station 2 in South St. Louis County, Mo. A Tennessee lawmaker wants to install similar boxes in every county in the state to address what he thinks will be an increase in newborn abandonments. (Christine Tannous/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

For more than two decades, the number of newborns legally surrendered by their mothers each year under Tennessee's no-questions-asked safe haven law has remained small but steady.

Now that abortion has been outlawed in Tennessee — and as lawmakers this year weigh new legislation punishing those who aid minor children seeking abortions out of state — some elected officials and advocates are pushing for an expansion of the state's safe haven resources, saying they anticipate the number of surrendered newborn babies to rise.

Rep. Ed Butler, R-Rickman, has proposed legislation allocating $2 million to help ensure each Tennessee county has a so-called "baby box," an insulated pull-out drawer installed in the exterior walls of police stations and fire houses that allows a new mother to safely and anonymously leave her newborn. The devices come equipped with alarms that alert those inside to retrieve the baby within minutes.

"I think this is another tool to help mothers in distress," Butler told a legislative committee Tuesday, saying the tool could avert tragedy. "Unfortunately, we're living in a society where a baby box is the only option."

Newborns surrendered in recent years under Tennessee's safe haven law

— 2018: 7.

— 2019: 7.

— 2020: 5.

— 2021: 6.

— 2022: 7.

— 2023: 7.

Source: Department of Children's Services

Taylore Sanzo, executive director of A Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee, believes the money would be better spent on education and advocacy about the state's existing safe haven law, using state funding for social media outreach and to provide paid speakers inside schools.

"I would not be surprised to see the numbers jump because women will no longer be able to abort their pregnancies," Sanzo said. "Women need to know there's a viable option to abandonment. They're going to want an alternative, and it's so important to ensure that information is available."

(READ MORE: 'After-birth abortion' raised in Tennessee Senate race has no medical basis, experts say)

Enacted in 2001, the state's safe haven law allows new mothers to surrender their infants under 2 weeks old at designated drop-off sites without repercussion, unless the baby has suffered abuse. The sites include more than 1,500 police stations, hospitals, fire halls and other locations across the state, including the labor and delivery departments in which they gave birth.

Women and girls may also call 911 for first responders to come collect newborn babies, a provision of the law intended to extend the reach of the safe haven law to rural areas with fewer designated drop-off sites and to provide girls too young to possess a driver's license a way to safely hand off their infant.

The newborns are then transported for medical care, before the Department of Children's Services takes custody.

Safe haven laws, which exist in every state, were initially enacted as an alternative to abuse, infanticide and abandonment. In recent years, anti-abortion advocates have suggested they serve as an alternative for women who would otherwise seek abortion.

(READ MORE: Following abortion ban, Tennessee lawmakers aim to make adoption easier)

In Tennessee, however, there has been no increase in women and girls surrendering their newborns since the state's strict abortion ban took effect in August 2022.

Since Tennessee's safe haven law was enacted 23 years ago, 131 newborns have been legally surrendered — a steady average of about six infants each year, according to data provide by the Department of Children's Services.

Thus far, just three Tennessee cities have installed baby boxes — formally known as newborn safety devices, which cost about $15,000 each.

A Knoxville Fire Department Station was the first, installing the device in February 2023. On May 17, fire station crews got their first alert — finding a healthy newborn baby less than an hour old inside. A Jackson, Tennessee, fire station installed a baby box in September. Earlier this month, Roane County officials announced a new baby box had been installed at a local fire station.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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