Response of Local Social Services Agencies to Media Coverage of "Into Safe Arms"
Date: December 5, 2002
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Greg H. Dohrman, Assistant County Attorney
Phone: (757) 253-6832
Social Services agencies in James City County, York-Poquoson, and the City of Williamsburg are concerned about inaccurate statements made in certain recent media coverage of a program referred to as "Into Safe Arms." The legitimate scope of the program is, according to local hospitals and prosecutors, that mothers who bring a newborn baby to a hospital to relinquish custody will not face criminal charges. The program fails to recognize, however, the legal obligations of Social Services in such cases.
If a parent leaves a child, even in a hospital, intending to never return, Virginia law considers that child to be abused and/or neglected. This will not trigger criminal prosecution if local Commonwealth's Attorneys choose not to prosecute such cases, but the law mandates that Social Services pursue any such case by filing a civil petition to obtain legal custody of the child. In that proceeding, the parent would be adjudicated as having abused and neglected the child. The parent would also be listed on the state child abuse/neglect registry. Furthermore, health care workers and other designated individuals are obligated by law to immediately report such incidents to Social Services. In fulfilling its legal role, Social Services would investigate to determine the identity of both of the child's parents, and even though the child would be taken into foster care the parents would be summoned to court multiple times to participate in foster care hearings. Any claim of the "Into Safe Arms" program that a parent in Virginia can maintain anonymity and will not have to participate in legal proceedings is, therefore, entirely untrue.
Social Services is and should continue to be the primary resource for any parent considering giving up a child under these circumstances. When handled correctly, and in appropriate cases, a parent can relinquish custody of a child (even a newborn) to Social Services without facing an abuse/neglect adjudication or other legal proceedings. Even more important, however, is that anonymity and "no questions asked" relinquishments of custody of a child are not in the best interests of the child or the parents. Social Services and potential adoptive parents need to have access to the baby's family and medical history to best plan for the child's future. As for the mother, who is likely to have limited resources, any party accepting custody of her child should offer and encourage her to utilize counseling and other services. Additionally, the father's parental rights must be protected by due process of law.
Social Services shares in the concern over the tragic and alarming stories of abandoned babies, but the best approach to this problem is to publicize the existing, legitimate avenues to relinquishing custody of a child. Before the media coverage, the promoters of the "Into Safe Arms" program contacted some of the Social Services agencies and this information was shared with them at that time. Social Services wants the public to have complete and accurate information about this vitally important issue. For further information about the role of Social Services and the correct legal procedures for these types of cases, please call Social Services in the City of Williamsburg at 220-6161, in York-Poquoson at 890-3737, and in James City County at 259-3100.