A Matter of Life and Death

Some of the most heartbreaking media stories are about newborn babies found, alive or dead, abandoned by a parent. Babies are abandoned in a variety of locations, including roadsides, hotel rooms, woods and occasionally in a commercial waste container. The repulsiveness of this act is heightened by the image of a garbage container. It also places responsibility on the waste industry, deserved or not, to help find a solution to this social problem.

Almost every state has passed a “Safe Haven” or “Safe Surrender” law to encourage parents to safely relinquish an infant instead of abandoning the baby. These laws designate specific places for receiving babies — such as hospitals, fire and police stations, and emergency medical providers — and generally allow the parents to remain anonymous and avoid the threat of prosecution.

While the issue of abandoned infants is not a common solid waste concern, there has been some strong pressure by organizations to place labels on commercial trash containers to publicize a state's “Safe Haven” law, with the expectation that this will be a deterrent. In addition, there is always the likelihood that the press or local TV station will want to interview the owner of a company in whose container a baby is found.

Recently, Los Angeles County, Calif., and Orange County, Calif., have been very active in efforts to promote the state's “Safe Surrender” law and were at one point considering labels on commercial trash containers as an element of their programs. However, after studying this issue by talking to experts and reviewing academic articles on baby abandonment, child abuse and infanticide, the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) does not believe container labeling is an effective part of the solution to this complex social problem.

In August, Dr. Ben Hoffman, Waste Management's vice president and chief medical officer, and the author of this column met with representatives from the Los Angeles County Fire Department and representatives from the Raise Foundation, a large, nonprofit child welfare organization based in Orange County, Calif. The purpose of the meeting was to explain why NSWMA felt container labeling was not an effective use of limited resources, to suggest alternatives and to explore what support role NSWMA, collection companies and other solid waste associations can play in addressing this problem.

At the outset, there was agreement that this is a complex and difficult social issue that does not lend itself to “feel good” solutions. Hoffman cited data that shows most babies already are dead when discarded in a trash container and that placing warning labels on trash containers would have little or no impact on those most at risk: women in denial or hiding their pregnancy, substance abusers, women lacking any support system and women suffering from postpartum depression.

In addition, NSWMA cited logistical factors that would limit the effectiveness of labels on trash containers. Weather and vibrational force exerted on trash containers when emptied make it difficult for adhesive labels to last long. Containers are often hidden and difficult to access. Lighting is necessary to read the labels, which would have to include at least three different languages (English, Spanish and Vietnamese).

The discussions concluded with a recommendation that a short film be produced explaining the details of California's “Safe Surrender” law, including a dramatization of a young mother who almost discarded her baby but for the law. The film would be screened in high schools, trade schools and other environments with high-risk people. The Raise Foundation and other organizations are planning a major conference early next year focusing on infant abandonment and similar topics.

Bruce J. Parker is president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at bparker@envasns.org.