New Hampshire’s “Safe Haven Law,” sometimes called the “baby drop-off law,” has directly saved the lives of babies. Unfortunately, the law faces grave threats. As churches, you have a unique opportunity to serve the most vulnerable among us by providing low-cost, life-saving protections for newborns that our government will not.
Under the Safe Haven Law, RSA 132-A, an unwanted newborn baby may be dropped off by his parents—no questions asked—at any “safe haven,” including a church, hospital, police station, or fire station. These “safe havens” are allowed to take temporary custody of the baby, are shielded from legal liability, and are allowed to protect the identity of the newborn’s parents. These infants are then turned over to the department of health and human services.
Unfortunately, some hospital personnel and state agencies may have damaged the effectiveness of our Safe Haven Law by reporting and criminally investigating parents who have dropped off their babies. These actions have sent a dangerous message: that if parents are involved in drug abuse or violent crime, utilizing a safe haven will result in their arrest.
Our Safe Haven Law was meant to offer high-risk parents every incentive to act in the best interests of their baby, giving the child a chance to survive and to grow up in a loving home. It was not meant as a law enforcement tool to lure and catch criminals.
Children most in need of safe havens are no longer being brought forward. A Manchester baby was famously hospitalized for hypothermia in December of 2022, a Somersworth baby died in January of 2022, and a Hudson baby died after being taken to a Massachusetts hospital in June of this year.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The National Safe Haven Alliance—which runs a nationwide hotline for parents in crisis—reports that safe havens rescued at least 73 babies around the country in 2021 alone.
As our attorney, Ian Huyett, has explained, churches are uniquely positioned to help these at-risk newborns. Parents may trust that churches, unlike hospitals, will not betray their identities to the authorities—especially if churches display external signs promising to protect the parents’ identities.
How can my church qualify to be a safe haven?
Technically, under RSA 132-A, your church is already a safe haven whenever you, a staff member, or a recognized church volunteer are present in the building.
Even if you did not know about the Safe Haven Law, any person off the street could hand you a newborn during your Sunday sermon this week, and you would have the legal power to “take temporary care and control” of the baby.
Realistically, however, only those churches with staffed office hours outside of their weekly worship times can expect to act as safe havens. Under RSA 132-A:1, III, a church is only a safe haven when it is “attended by a person” or persons.
For this reason, any church that wishes to act as a safe haven must display an external sign notifying the public that the church is willing to accept unwanted newborns during its staffed hours.
No particular sign is required by any law. As a practical matter, however, parents have no way to know that a church is willing to be a safe haven, and at what times, unless an exterior sign is posted.
What duties and risks are involved in being a safe haven?
After accepting a newborn, you may wait up to 24 hours before contacting the authorities. This grace period exists to ensure that parents who use the Safe Haven law have time to leave the area after surrendering their baby to you.
No more than 24 hours after taking custody of a newborn, you must contact the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, as well as your local police department, to inform them that you have “received a newborn under RSA 132-A.” If the child does not require immediate medical attention, you may contact law enforcement through a non-emergency number.
The department will then make arrangements to receive the child from you. Under RSA 132-A:3, II, you may submit receipts to the department for all necessary costs incurred in caring for the child. You are legally entitled to reimbursement from DHHS for these expenses.
RSA 132-A:2, II clarifies that any safe haven “shall ensure the provision of any medical services necessary to protect the physical health or safety of the child.” Do not let this discourage you, however.
Under RSA 132-A:4, you, your church, and church staff or volunteers cannot be held legally liable “as a result of action taken pursuant to” the Safe Haven Law. If you receive a child who is sick or injured, you are only expected to act as any reasonable adult would act while you wait to deliver the child to the responsible authorities.
The key point to remember is that safe haven personnel do not need to be medical or childcare experts. A safe haven serves essentially a social purpose: to protect the identity of the child’s parents and thereby encourage other children to be brought forward.
I’m considering advertising my church as a safe haven. What should my exterior sign say?
While no specific form of words is legally required for you to be a safe haven, we advise that any external sign advertising a safe haven should contain the following three elements:
- The sign must indicate that you are willing to accept unwanted babies from their parents.
- The sign must offer to accept newborns during staffed office hours, which must be indicated on the sign.
- The sign must promise explicitly that you will not reveal a parent’s identifying information to the authorities.
Cornerstone has created an illustration of a model sign, below, which you are free to adapt and use.
To order a sign like this one, contact FastSigns of Manchester and inform them you wish to order a copy of the “Cornerstone Safe Haven sign.” You can contact FastSigns through this form and may even upload the image below of the model sign.
Be sure to ask FastSigns, or the manufacturer of your choice, to change the office hours on the sign to reflect your office hours.
What are my legal rights if I am questioned by the police or other authorities?
Under RSA 132-A:2, I, a parent is not required to give personally identifiable information to any safe haven. You may candidly tell the parents this at the time you receive the baby. Additionally, you are not required to give any identifying information about the parents, including a physical description, to the police or other government officials.
If questioned about the parents’ identity, you may wish to immediately and politely say that you wish to safeguard their identity to protect the integrity of the Safe Haven Law. If police or other officials continue to question you about the parents’ identity, you should courteously state that you do not wish to answer any further questions and ask if you are free to leave the conversation.
In the extremely unlikely event that you are detained in any way by an out-of-line or overzealous officer or other official, remain calm and respectfully say “I invoke my right to counsel and do not wish to answer any further questions until I speak with my attorney.” Call Cornerstone and we will ensure you are connected with a competent attorney who is well-versed in church and clergy protections.
Notably, as a pastor, you can offer parents even more protections than they would get if they dropped off their child at, for example, a fire station. Although a fireman who received a baby could legally withhold the parents’ identity from the police, the fireman could still be required to reveal the parents’ identity if called to testify at trial.
As a minister, your situation is different. New Hampshire recognizes the “clergy-penitent privilege,” meaning that no minister can be compelled to give evidence against someone who confesses to him in confidence. This includes identifying information about the person.