Report 2007-124 Summary - April 2008

Safely Surrendered Baby Law:

Stronger Guidance From the State and Better Information for the Public Could Enhance Its Impact

HIGHLIGHTS

Our review of the State's implementation of the Safely Surrendered Baby Law (safe-surrender law) revealed the following:

  • The safe-surrender law does not impose on any state agency sufficient requirements to publicize its availability, thus potentially reducing the law's effectiveness.
  • The State's failure to provide consistent funding for promoting the law may further reduce its effectiveness.
  • The Department of Social Services' (Social Services) initial efforts to publicize the safe-surrender law exceeded its statutory obligations; however, it has not developed any further goals for conducting additional activities.
  • After the Legislature amended the safe-surrender law to provide greater protection to individuals who surrender a child, Social Services supplied counties with erroneous guidance on managing confidential data on these individuals.
  • Safe-surrender sites included identifying information on individuals who surrendered babies—a violation of state law—in more than 9 percent of the cases since the amendment took effect.
  • At least 77 children may not have access later in life to information on their birth parents that they may have a legal right to view because, according to Social Services, counties have incorrectly classified them as surrendered.
  • Likely as the natural result of the safe-surrender process and the act of abandoning a child, which do not lend themselves to robust data collection, we learned very little about the mothers of surrendered and abandoned babies from our review of the caseworker narratives.
  • Several counties have developed interesting approaches to increasing public awareness about the safe-surrender law.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

California's Safely Surrendered Baby Law (safe-surrender law) provides a lifesaving alternative to distressed individuals who are unwilling or unable to care for a newborn. The Legislature, responding to a growing number of reports about the deaths of abandoned babies in California, enacted the safe-surrender law, which became effective in January 2001. The law allows a parent or other person having lawful custody of a baby 72 hours old or younger to surrender the baby confidentially and legally to staff at a hospital or other designated safe-surrender site.

Although the intent of the safe-surrender law is admirable, the law does not impose on any state agency sufficient requirements to publicize its availability, thus potentially reducing the law's effectiveness. Specifically, along with establishing the process for surrendering a baby, the safe-surrender law originally required the Department of Social Services (Social Services) to report to the Legislature annually, from 2003 to 2005, specific data concerning surrendered and abandoned babies, to demonstrate the law's impact. However, the reporting requirement did not extend past 2005. The safe-surrender law also requires counties to notify Social Services about each surrendered baby. Additionally, the law mandates that the Department of Health Care Services, formerly the Department of Health Services, inform counties that surrendered babies are eligible for the California Medical Assistance Program (Medi Cal). It does not, however, require any state agency to make the public aware of the law or to actively monitor its success on an ongoing basis.

Further, since the safe-surrender law's inception, the State has not provided consistent funding to create and administer a program to increase the public's awareness of the law. During the past seven years, the Legislature has sent to two different governors bills that would establish a public awareness program, among other things. However, former Governor Davis vetoed the first bill because it would have required additional funding beyond that approved in the budget for that year. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the second bill because it would have extended the time allowed for the safe surrender of infants from 72 hours to seven days, and in his veto message stated that this extension could have the unintended effect of keeping babies in unsafe situations for longer periods.

In response to direction from Governor Davis at the time of his veto to increase public awareness of the safe-surrender law using existing funding sources, Social Services conducted a media campaign from October 2002 to December 2003 supported by limited funding from the State Children's Trust Fund (trust fund) and the California Children and Families Commission, also known as First 5 California. Specifically, since 2002 Social Services has used approximately $800,000 from the trust fund and obtained $1 million from First 5 California to raise awareness of the safe-surrender law, mainly to broadcast public service announcements on radio and television that target women ages 14 to 38 in the five largest media markets in California. These efforts exceeded Social Services' statutory obligations. The department has not attempted to secure additional funding since 2002 because it believes that further outreach is unnecessary and that the law does not require such efforts.

Moreover, since these initial efforts, Social Services has not developed any further goals for conducting additional activities to publicize the safe-surrender law. According to the chief of its Office of Child Abuse Prevention, Social Services has fulfilled its statutory obligations, and the ongoing awareness efforts at the local level, combined with the lack of an "alarming increase" in the number of abandoned babies, mitigate Social Services' need for additional efforts. However, our audit revealed that although Social Services has indeed fulfilled its minimal statutory obligations, awareness efforts at the local level vary from county to county, and Social Services is using understated statistics on abandoned babies when it concludes that further efforts to heighten public awareness are unnecessary.

More troubling, after the Legislature amended the safe-surrender law effective January 2004 to provide greater protection to individuals who surrender a child, Social Services supplied counties with erroneous guidance about how to manage confidential data on these individuals in the Child Welfare Services Case Management System (CWS/CMS), which is the statewide database that county child welfare workers (caseworkers) use to track and share information on child abuse cases. Potentially because of this guidance as well as improper action by local staff, we found identifying information—such as names, phone numbers, or addresses—on the persons who surrendered babies in more than 9 percent of the case files created since the amendment took effect. These instances indicate numerous violations by safe-surrender sites of the law's protection of such information from disclosure. Further, the availability of such information may cause the county to take actions contrary to the law's intent, such as contacting the person who surrendered a baby to verify his or her decision, which could discourage parents from safely surrendering their babies.

Moreover, the CWS/CMS has an alarming amount of inaccurate data on surrendered and abandoned babies. According to Social Services, the counties' child protective services or other agencies providing child welfare services (county agencies) have incorrectly classified in the CWS/CMS at least 77 babies as surrendered when they were not, or about 26 percent of all babies classified as surrendered. Since 2001 county agencies have also incorrectly classified several surrendered babies as abandoned. As a result of these misclassifications, surrendered and abandoned babies may have too much or too little access later in life to confidential information on their parents. For instance, an abandoned baby who has been inaccurately classified as surrendered may not have access to data in the CWS/CMS that list his or her parents' names or other identifying information, despite potentially having that right. Conversely, the parents of surrendered babies who are incorrectly classified as abandoned may not be properly safeguarded, undermining a basic premise of the safe-surrender law. Although Social Services is aware of the problems associated with the inaccurate classification of abandoned and surrendered babies, it has not ensured that counties use a uniform definition of safe surrender. Furthermore, Social Services' staff indicated that the department has not compelled counties to correct the inaccurate data because it lacks the necessary legal authority.

The State has also been able to collect only limited data on surrendered and abandoned babies. We learned very little about the mothers of surrendered and abandoned babies from our review of the caseworker narratives for every surrendered baby and for a sample of babies classified in the CWS/CMS as abandoned. The limited data are likely the natural result of the safe-surrender process and the act of child abandonment, which do not lend themselves to robust data collection. Nevertheless, the limited data that are available suggest no pattern or profile regarding individuals who are at risk of abandoning their children.

Finally, although county efforts to publicize the safe-surrender law vary, several counties have developed interesting approaches to increasing public awareness about the safe-surrender law. For example, in addition to conducting its own extensive media campaign, Los Angeles County developed middle and high school curriculum to inform students about the law, and the county requires each of its government contractors to give its employees a fact sheet about the law. Other counties have translated Social Services' posters and pamphlets into other languages, including Chinese and Vietnamese, and one county developed an award winning educational film. Social Services and other counties have an opportunity to leverage these innovative models, approaches, and products when conducting future outreach.

RECOMMENDATIONS

If it would like Social Services or other agencies to promote awareness of the safe-surrender law, the Legislature should consider amending the law to do the following:

  • Specify the agency that should administer a safe-surrender program, with responsibilities that include ongoing outreach and monitoring efforts.
  • Require continued annual reporting to the Legislature on the law's impact.
  • Consider providing or identifying funding that will support efforts to promote awareness of the law.

To ensure that individuals who surrender babies receive proper protection under the safe-surrender law, Social Services should take the following steps:

  • Clarify the definition of safe surrender and then disseminate and monitor its use among county and state agencies. If Social Services believes statutory change is needed to do so, it should seek the requisite authority from the Legislature.
  • Clarify the circumstances under which safe-surrender sites and counties must protect the identifying information on the individual who surrenders an infant.
  • Require counties to correct records in the CWS/CMS that Social Services' staff believe are erroneous because counties have misclassified babies as either surrendered or abandoned. Because Social Services does not believe it presently has the authority to do so, Social Services should seek legislation to obtain this authority.

To continue raising the public's awareness of the safe-surrender law in the most cost-effective manner, Social Services should work with the counties to leverage existing models and tools currently in use in California, such as translated materials and existing middle and high school curricula.

To support future efforts related to the safe-surrender law, including continuing outreach and improving the quality of the State's statistics, Social Services should consider using a portion of existing funds, such as those available in its trust fund, and should consider renewing its partnership with First 5 California, which Social Services can legally use for such efforts.

AGENCY COMMENTS

Social Services embraces our findings and recommendations and indicates it will address them in its corrective action plan and ensure that they are resolved as appropriate. However, Social Services also believes some additional clarification of the statements presented in the audit report would be beneficial.


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