Would Safe Haven 'Baby Hatches' Help Stop Babies From Being Abandoned?

The tragic recent deaths of two babies has led to looking at the overseas practise of offering 'safe haven', an option to safely and anonymously surrender a child to health authorities if parents cannot care for it.

The idea of these services, which are available in some parts of Europe and the United States, is that parents need an option to give up their child safely, rather than doing something dangerous.

'Safe haven' laws are not common or widely-supported, but have been proposed in Australia several times, often after sad incidents of children being found dead or abandoned.

Stock image (Getty Images)

Such examples in recent years include a days-old child being found in a storm drain in western Sydney, a baby found buried on a Maroubra beach, and a child found dead in a garbage tip in Campbelltown.

READ MORE: Baby Girl Found On Beach 'Sacrificed'

Overseas, unwanted babies are able to be dropped off anonymously at designated points, often around churches, fire stations or hospitals. In some areas, the child can be dropped off safely in a  'baby box', a warm and temperature-controlled bed which can be closed from the outside to protect the child -- when a baby is left there, an alert sounds to notify emergency workers of the child's presence.

Parents who change their mind later can claim their child back within a certain time period.

Laws permitting 'safe haven' mean that parents cannot be prosecuted for child abandonment. A US group claimed up to 3000 children had been placed in such boxes -- known as 'baby hatches' -- in the 15 years to 2016, while the practise is also well-established in Italy and Germany. But the concept is controversial, with the United Nations not supporting the idea, saying it breaches the right of a child to know its parents.

Labor senator Helen Polley has called for safe haven laws in the past, arguing parents need a judgement-free alternative. She said "without a doubt" Australian state governments should look to legalise and support the concept.

Labor Senator Helen Polley. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

"I'm not saying a baby hatch would have saved these children [in Australia] but we have to look at other alternatives," she told 10 daily.

"For a first-time mum, it can be really overwhelming."

"We only know the babies that are found. What about the babies that are never found? We don't know how many have been abandoned."

Polley runs a Facebook page, Baby Safe Havens Australia, which shares information about the concept.

The NSW coroner recommended the state investigate safe haven laws in 2016, as did former Australian Medical Association QLD president Dr Christian Rowan.

Dr Jennifer James, a midwife consultant, said such practise was not new -- indeed, the idea has a centuries-old history.

"It has happened outside churches historically, sadly," she told 10 daily.

"I don't think we've ever had it in Australia, there's only probably a handful of cases in the last 60 years where a baby has been left on a doorstep. It's quite rare."

James said parents who would look to utilise such a service "usually would have had some kind of psychotic mental health crisis", and that highly-trained doctors and nurses in hospitals would almost certainly pick up such distress and intervene before more extreme action was needed. But she noted that many people in distress may not visit a hospital to give birth in the first place.

A baby-safe haven sign at the entrance to a police station in Minnesota (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"The women most vulnerable to these things often aren't in the hospital system, or they might have a baby and leave hospital quickly. They're more likely to birth alone or in a place other than a healthcare facility," James said.

She noted parents who are poor, have substance abuse issues, or who were from culturally diverse backgrounds who may not want to admit to pre-marital sex, may be particularly at risk."

Cathy Lucre, a woman from Sydney, tried to start her own volunteer-run safe haven project in Australia. It started with her putting a baby bassinet on her own front doorstep, and soon grew into a nationwide movement offering support to others in the community, and a Facebook page with 18,000 followers.

Her push has since been shelved, owing to health and safety issues around such a volunteer-led project. But she still uses her page, Operation Safe Haven, to call for Australia to institute a professionally-run and legal service.

"There needs to be an option for people," Lucre told 10 daily.

"The services out there are very good, but they're stretched. They do the best they can, but we don't know how many babies are out there that haven't been found. "

Lucre said she worried that young women might be especially vulnerable.

"There needs to be more conversation about unplanned pregnancies or unwanted babies, and young girls who can't talk to their family about what's going on. We need to have those conversations and a safe place for mums to come," she said.