KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A 2020 Oak Ridge case surrounding an unidentified baby is drawing attention to Tennessee’s Safe Haven Law.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is asking for tips to help identify the body of a newborn floating along the banks of Melton Lake in 2020. The organization recently shared digitally created pictures of what the child is believed to have looked like and the shirt found alongside him. NCMEC along with other national and local agencies are working on a DNA analysis that can be used to help bring closure to this case.

The Tennessee Safe Haven Law was enacted in 2001 and amended in 2020 to help prevent cases like this one. It allows mothers to surrender their unharmed newborn within 14 days of birth, confidentially and without fear of prosecution for abandonment.

There are now over a thousand Safe Haven facilities across the state.

“I had just started working for A Secret Safe Haven when that newborn was found and I remember talking with the oak ridge police department about that newborn. It was gut-wrenching to hear about that happening,” said Sarah Turner, the Outreach Director of A Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee.

Turner helps train and assists facilities where mothers can surrender babies up to 14 days old.

“It’s any hospital, birthing center, health department, walk-in clinic, or any EMS facility, fire department, or police department in the state of Tennessee. The fire department, police department, and EMS facility does have to be staffed 24/7 but most are. So that’s reassuring,” she said.

State Senator Richard Briggs helped spearhead the bill into law back in 2001 after a 14-year-old Townsend girl secretly delivered her baby and then abandoned it in a neighbor’s shed where it died.

“These things just happen and what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to publicize it to the extent that if a mother wants to give up her child and the child hasn’t been abused, she can do that because there’s going to be loving families that want to adopt these children,” he said.

The overall goal of both the law and A Safe Secret Place for Newborns of Tennessee is to ensure a safe home for babies and complete privacy for moms.

A new drop-off method is about to make the process even easier.

“We passed a Safe Haven Baby Box Law where if a woman wanted to do this completely anonymously there are these baby boxes and we’re just opening the first one in Knox County sometime in the next two weeks,” said Briggs.

Since the law was enacted in 2001 over 115 newborns have been surrendered to date. The process is completely confidential.  

How the surrender works:

  1. The mother arrives at the Safe Haven location and notifies the staff that she wishes to surrender her baby.
  2. The baby is thoroughly examined at the haven and is then transported to a hospital where it is further examined.
  3. The Department of Children’s Services (DCS) is called.
  4. The baby is placed in a foster-to-adopt home.
  5. The mother is given a “mother’s packet” that includes her rights, an identification wristband (to prove she is the mother) and notification that after 30 days from the surrender, she will relinquish all her rights to her child.