On a Saturday afternoon in May, Tim Jaccard received a desperate telephone call: a woman had just given birth to a baby in the front seat of her car. A baby she didn’t want. Now, she needed help.
“I walked her through tying off the umbilical cord,” explains Jaccard, a former paramedic. “But she didn’t want to go the hospital because she was afraid she would be seen, so she agreed to go a firehouse nearby.”
Alerted by Jaccard, a medic stood waiting at that fire station in Medina, New York, in the northwestern part of the state near Lake Ontario. “She went up, gave him the child, and drove away,” says Jaccard. “And that baby girl was saved.”
The mother’s identity remains a secret. Her actions, while shocking, are legal in New York, which adopted a so-called “safe haven” law in 2000. Under the law, parents who feel they cannot care for their children can leave them at a hospital, fire or police station or with another responsible individual. The process is anonymous and the parents will not face legal action provided the child is under 30 days old and shows no signs of abuse. Legislators designed the law to prevent parents from killing unwanted babies or leaving them in public places where they face death from exposure.
Jaccard is used to receiving calls from mothers with nowhere else to turn. He runs a national emergency hotline for women who are considering abandoning their babies and works as the Safe Haven Coordinator for Nassau County, New York. That Saturday was particularly draining. Earlier that morning, Jaccard had attended the funeral of a baby boy found dead in his teenage mother’s apartment. The child had been wrapped in a towel and stuffed in a yellow leather handbag.
American safe haven laws: a stopgap measure
Today all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have passed some form of safe haven law. And countries around the globe are paying attention. For example, Russia, which faces a severe child abandonment crisis, has studied the U.S.’s approach and helped sponsor conferences on children’s welfare to spur collaboration between the two countries.
But here’s the problem: safe haven laws, designed to save children, could actually be hurting them in the long run. Jaccard rightly points out that an unwanted baby is better off in the arms of a police officer than in a dumpster. But child welfare experts interviewed for this article all agreed that children raised in permanent homes (whether by biological parents, close relatives, or adoptive parents) usually do better than those who grow up in foster care or group homes.
Safe haven laws are, at best, a stopgap measure, according to Dr. Ronald Hughes, a psychologist at the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare (NARCCW). If policy-makers want to reduce child abandonment, Hughes says, they need to strike at the root of the problem: identifying families and single mothers who feel overwhelmed by pregnancy and teaching them how to create a safe and loving environment for their children. Social workers describe this approach as “early family intervention.” While costly and difficult to perform, keeping families together is usually in the best interest of the child. This marks a major departure in child welfare theory, explains Dr. Judith Rycus, also of the NARCCW. For many years, she says, psychologists believed children should be removed from potentially abusive situations at the first signs of trouble.
Tim Jaccard agrees safe havens can never be more than a “last resort,” but believes the U.S. still needs them. “Even if they save just one life, we have to have these laws on the books,” he argues. It’s a common refrain from safe haven supporters and a compelling one. But after passing safe haven laws, many state legislatures thought their job was done. “I think they all breathed a sigh of relief that they had met their responsibility to the citizens to do what they could,” explains Linda Spears of the Children’s Welfare League of America, “without actually tackling the underlying problems” of poverty, neglect and isolation.
Russia’s “social orphans”
Russia’s abandoned child crisis likely surpasses the problem in the U.S., according to Dr. Hughes. “We’re talking maybe thousands of kids in the US, versus tens of thousands in Russia.”
The Russian government says 118,000 children live in state orphanages. Estimates place the total number of children in Russia living without their biological parents at around 600,000. The vast majority of these children are so-called “social orphans,” meaning one or both of their parents are still alive. In most of these cases, the government took the children away because of abuse or neglect. Others were simply given up by their families. In 2012 alone, 6,230 newborns were abandoned in Russia, according to government data.
Part of the problem? Russian law allows for parents who are going through tough times to give up their children to orphanages, either for a short period of time or permanently. “If [the families] were very poor,” explains Rycus, “or if they were abusing or neglecting their children, it was thought that at least an orphanage would provide them with three meals a day, clothing and an education.” Hughes, who like Rycus has worked in Russia, adds: “They’ll accept children [of any age] with no questions asked.” Russian authorities underline, however, that parents must provide convincing proof of their hardship.
Many children abandoned in Russia have disabilities or suffer from medical conditions caused by a lack of pre- and neo-natal care. As in the U.S., their parents tend to be poorer and less educated than the general population. Some are struggling with drug or alcohol addictions. Others still live with their parents or grandparents and have a hard time finding work. “There are many stereotypes about women abandoning their kids,” says Alexandra Marov, director of a children’s charity in Moscow. “That all of them are bad mothers or have every sort of addiction. But in many cases newborn abandonment is caused by the hard living conditions of their mothers.” These vulnerable parents have little emotional support. They feel unprepared to take care of a baby and believe the state can offer their child a better life.
Unfortunately, Dr. Rycus of the NARCCW says, that just isn’t the case. Conditions in Russian orphanages are grim: there is little in the way of schooling or emotional support. “The data is real clear,” Rycus says. “They end up homeless, they end up trafficked. They end up in prostitution and in crime.” Thanks to a grassroots campaign by Russian social scientists and children’s advocates, the government has decided it needs a different approach. One possible solution, as the BBC reports, is foster care. But foster care doesn’t necessarily produce better results than orphanages.
Family intervention instead of orphanages and foster care
Eileen Lally is a social worker who has taught at the University of Anchorage in Alaska. She’s no fan of the foster care system in the U.S., which currently cares for around 400,000 children. “In research we did in Alaska on people who aged out of foster care,” recounts Lally, “they looked exactly like kids coming out of orphanages in Russia,” overwhelmed by drugs, alcohol, depression, early pregnancy, unemployment and jail time. Lally believes the first step in fighting child abandonment is stopping unwanted pregnancies before they happen with sex education and birth control. Of course, birth control can be expensive and difficult to obtain and – in some communities – its use remains controversial. If a pregnancy can’t be avoided, Lally says, social service agencies need to identify at-risk women and have doctors monitor their progres. Some of the women need addiction counseling and rehab treatment. Emotional support is often as important as financial aid.
And the attention can’t stop after birth. “You’ve got to keep some support for going for her,” she says. “If you just turn her out of the hospital with a week work’s of Pampers, that’s not going to cut it. She needs support. You can’t leave her alone.”
Lally calls this kind of intervention “post-delivery work.” That means having nurses and social workers visit the mother and child. These young families also often require help buying food and finding shelter, as well as job training, psychological counseling, and childcare.
Rycus agrees on the importance of early intervention. The goal of these programs, she says, is to find mothers and “try to educate them, to make them employable, to teach them child-care. The sole intent is that the babies be healthy and will not be maltreated, and the mothers will be able to keep them. That’s their mission: to keep children in the families.”
It’s not easy work. How do you create a safe and loving environment in a home where a struggling single mother needs to work several jobs but can’t afford adequate childcare? Or for a down-on-their-luck couple trying to kick a drug addiction? The answer lies in a strong social safety-net, well-trained social workers and a functioning job market. None of which are guaranteed in an age of recession and austerity.
Americans and Russians working together
But despite the challenges, over the past few years Russia has begun experimenting with family intervention techniques, some of which were developed in the U.S. It’s ironic that this cooperation should be continuing, though less intensely, at the same time as Russia’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children. But there is a simple calculation at play: if Russia insists on raising its own children, its leaders understand they must improve the child welfare system in their own country. Hughes, Rycus, Lally and many other American child protection experts have spent time in Russia advising social workers there on the best way to reach troubled parents and parents-to-be. Lally emphasizes this kind of cross-cultural work can be complex. “We can’t just go over and tell them, ‘This is the way we do it, and so should you,” she says. Cooperation is key.
So far, this collaborative approach has shown some encouraging early results and has helped reinforce the already existing family intervention movement in Russia. In Novosibirsk, for example, The Together Center works to keep children in their biological families. Between 2008 and 2012, the Together Center’s psychologists counseled mothers in 403 cases of abandonment and succeeded in reuniting 145 children with their families.
Larisa—whose name has been changed for this article—offers an example of a typical at-risk parent. She was living at home with her mother and a daughter from her first marriage when she learned she was pregnant with twins. Money was tight, but her boyfriend Ivan comforted her and told her they’d be able to provide for their new family. “We can at least earn enough for a bowl of soup for everyone,” he assured her.
Then Larisa’s life was turned upside down. Her mother died unexpectedly. Suffering from shock, Larissa had a miscarriage and lost one of her babies. Ivan disappeared. The surviving twin was born with a serious disability, and doctors at the local hospital asked her why she wanted to care for an ill child. Larisa was lost. “Why torture myself and my daughter?” she asked a psychologist from the Together Center as she considered giving up her baby. The psychologist let Larisa’s grief pour out, but told her that other families had raised babies with similar ailments and grown stronger for it. That medical care could improve the child’s condition. That at a very basic level this young girl needed her mother – and Larisa needed her baby too. After a month of counseling, she agreed to take her daughter home.
Prevention is less expensive than cure
While social workers in the U.S. and Russia say family intervention is the best strategy for combating child abandonment, it’s harder to convince policy makers that all that money is worth it. Funding for effective programs remains limited in both countries. “We know some good models, we know some things that work,” Lally says. “But social workers are not good statisticians. We’re so inundated. We don’t take Fridays up so we can write up all the data. It’s a weakness. [Our profession] attracts the people who are focused on providing that immediate need —food, shelter, clothing—and we don’t always do a good job of convincing fellow citizens and lawmakers and policy makers why this is the way to go.”
In 2012, Russian social workers around the country helped keep 375 newborns in their biological families, according to official data. It’s a small start given the number of children abandoned every year. But by keeping accurate statistics the social workers hope to prove that early family intervention works. As the Roman poet Lucretius wrote: “constant dripping hollows out a stone.”
Ultimately, Lally believes the approach will save the government money. Helping a struggling mother get on her feet is cheaper than dealing with troubled adults who grow up without their biological families. “We don’t want to pay all that money initially,” Lally says, “but somehow we don’t mind building prisons.”
Nicholas Nehamas and Lubov Gribanova collaborated on this report for the “Common Stories Project,” an initiative sponsored by the Washington, DC-based Eurasia Foundation to document common social challenges faced by both the United States and Russia. Latitude News founder Maria Balinska was the coordinating editor.
Interested in more from the “Common Stories Project”? Check out “Russian, US farmers face similar challenges” by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and the Russian newspaper Krestianin.