New Hampshire’s “Safe Haven Law,” sometimes called the “baby drop-off law,” is a critical protection that has saved the lives of unwanted newborns. Yet the law faces grave threats, endangering the infants who rely on “safe havens” to protect them from starvation, exposure, or violent death.
Our legislators should step up to strengthen and expand our Safe Haven Law by, among other things, inserting a “baby box” option that has worked well in other states. In the meantime, New Hampshire’s churches have a unique opportunity to serve the most vulnerable among us by providing the low-cost, life-saving protections for newborns that our government will not.
What is New Hampshire’s “Safe Haven Law”? Exactly 20 years ago, state representative Phyllis Woods, current representative Maureen Mooney, and their colleagues achieved a legislative masterstroke. Under the law they passed, any unwanted newborn baby may be dropped off by its parents—no questions asked—at any “safe haven,” including a hospital, church, 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—but not required—to protect the identity of the newborn’s parents.
In multiple well-documented cases, our Safe Haven Law has directly saved the lives of at-risk babies. While our state agencies do not track the total number of babies saved in New Hampshire, 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.
Sadly, unforeseen challenges have begun to threaten the heroic intentions of New Hampshire’s law. Since at least 2012, government agencies have repeatedly launched vigorous searches to identify parents who have used the law, even when those parents made it clear they did not want their identities to be known. In at least one high-profile 2021 case, a hospital appears to have actively reported a couple to the authorities after they dropped off their baby, leading directly to the parents’ arrest for a separate murder charge and a litany of other crimes.
The actions of these entities, while well-meaning, have effectively defeated the entire point of the Safe Haven Law. They have sent the message that—if you are a parent involved in drug abuse or violent crime—leaving your baby at a hospital will expose your crimes to the searching eye of the state. This endangers the very children most in need of life-saving protection from our laws.
Some might defend state officials, and this hospital, by pointing out that the Safe Haven Law only protects parents from abandonment charges, not from unrelated criminal investigations. Yet that is beside the point.
Nobody denies that Danielle Dauphinais—the mother arrested in the 2021 safe haven case—is an abusive monster who should be in prison. The problem is that Dauphinais’ crimes were exposed as a direct result of her using the Safe Haven Law. The whole point of the law was to give parents like Dauphinais every incentive to turn over their children. It was not meant as a law enforcement tool to lure and catch criminals.
Dauphinais herself told police she used the Safe Haven Law because she thought it would allow her to rid herself of the baby without attracting attention from the authorities. Thanks to the actions of this hospital and our state government, the next Dauphinais may not make the same calculation. Instead, she may decide it is more convenient to simply poison the baby with fentanyl and starve him to death, as Dauphinais did to her previous child.
The reality is that children most in need of safe havens are no longer being brought forward. On one cold winter night in December 2022, a Manchester-area homeless woman famously gave birth in a makeshift tent and then abandoned the unclothed baby in the woods, causing the newborn to almost die of hypothermia. This specific case is well-known in New Hampshire because the homeless woman in question, Alexandra Eckersley, is the daughter of a famous athlete. Yet other, similar stories have remained in the dark.
While you have probably heard of Eckersley’s story, you may not have heard of a young toddler in Weare left to die of dehydration and infection in 2020, the suspicious death of a 17-day-old infant recovered from a Somersworth mobile home park last year, or the ongoing investigation of a 15-day-old Hudson baby’s death this June.
New Hampshire’s legislature can take several steps to prevent more deaths like these, drawing on the successes of other states to update our law. In the meantime, however, churches have an important role to play. Thanks to the foresight of Rep. Maureen Mooney and her colleagues, places of worship are now well-positioned to honor the intent of the law in a way that hospitals and state agencies may fail to.
Under RSA 132-A, New Hampshire churches have been given special legal powers to act as safe havens, including immunity from liability. An informal survey by Cornerstone indicates that most churches are not aware of this legal power and do not have external signs indicating that they are safe havens.
If churches began to openly volunteer themselves as safe havens, it might remove the threat posed by the Dauphinais investigation and similar cases. Parents may trust that churches will not betray their identities to the authorities—especially if churches display signs promising that they will not do so. In fact, even apart from the Safe Haven Law, 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.
For churches who may be interested in acting as a safe haven, Cornerstone has created a page of resources on our website which you may wish to consult.
While some churches may not be equipped to act as safe havens, they can still help by calling on their legislators to expand the scope of our Safe Haven Law protections. Cornerstone believes that our law requires at least three updates.
First, the age limit in our Safe Haven Law has been outpaced by surrounding New England states. New Hampshire’s law only protects children who are 7 days old or younger. Meanwhile, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have all extended their safe haven age limits to at least 30 days. It is notable that, in recent years, multiple New Hampshire babies have died of apparent neglect between 7 and 30 days of age.
New Hampshire should ideally lead the way in New England by increasing its limit to 61 days but, at a minimum, should match Maine’s limit of 31 days.
Secondly, New Hampshire should expand its Safe Haven law to allow the voluntary construction of “baby boxes”—receptacles in which babies can be placed safely and anonymously—at public facilities with 24-hour staffing. Theoretically, “baby boxes” can virtually eliminate parents’ fears of being identified or arrested if they utilize a safe haven. Cornerstone has drawn on the “baby box” laws of other states to create draft legislation that would copy what has worked while avoiding what has not.
Finally, New Hampshire should legally prevent safe havens from being used as a law enforcement tool. This could include adopting a version of the “exclusionary rule” used in Fourth Amendment law. Under the Fourth Amendment, criminal investigations cannot directly result from an illegal search. Likewise—while law enforcement should be commended for apprehending criminals like Danielle Dauphinais—their investigations should not originate from a parent’s decision to use a safe haven.
By building a church culture and a legal system designed to protect babies, our churches and state legislators could make it all but unthinkable for a newborn to find himself cold and alone in the woods of Manchester again. Together, they can and should aspire to hear the words spoken by Jesus in Matthew 25:45: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”
This op-ed initially appeared on August 28, 2023 in the NH Journal.