The May 21 case of another newborn abandoned in Saskatchewan reveals grave deficiencies in Canada’s legal protection of children. Like the Saskatoon mother who left her baby in the frigid Feb. 3 weather, the mother who left her baby in the toilet of a Prince Albert Wal-Mart will likely not be charged with a crime. As Calgary Sun editor Licia Corbella pointed out, this is hardly equality before the law; a man who committed the same crime would be charged with attempted murder. It is not the role of the Justice Department (or a Crown prosecutor) to refuse prosecution in advance of an investigation. Mental health and social considerations that may attenuate culpability and legal consequences should be properly assessed, not assumed a priori.

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Frank Quennell says that the province has a policy of not prosecuting mothers who leave their babies with police, medical personnel or child welfare workers. But leaving one’s child for dead is not equivalent to planning for his safety.

Quennell sees no need for a federal law clearly protecting from prosecution parents who conscientiously relinquish their newborns. He finds the existing Saskatchewan social services network to be adequate. As Edmonton Sun columnist Mindelle Jacobs replied, it’s great that such help is in place, “except only policy wonks know about it.” Without publicity, parents who feel unable to keep their newborns may hide the evidence – in dumpsters, garbage trucks or toilets.

Meanwhile, 47 American states have safe-haven laws, which allow for the anonymous surrender of a baby, with no fear of prosecution provided he has not been abused. Actress Patricia Heaton, who is also the honourary chair of Feminists for Life, has publicized the concept nationally. Over 1,000 babies have been received nationally by safe havens since tracking began in 1999. Perhaps the most successful experience has been in Massachusetts, where a law passed in 2004 has resulted in the safe relinquishment of six children. Meanwhile, two children have been abandoned; one died and his mother has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. In contrast, during the four years prior to the legislation’s enactment, 13 babies had been abandoned, of whom just seven survived.

Here’s how the procedure works: a newborn baby may be relinquished to emergency medical personnel, child welfare workers, police, firefighters or paramedics; “no questions asked, but information may be given.” The motto for all of New England is, “If you can’t keep your baby, you can keep your baby safe.”

Some states require an official receiving the baby to inform the parent of her legal rights. Some require the official to ask the parent for information on the family and medical history. If so, the law clarifies that the parent is free to go without answering. One possible improvement to this procedure would be for basic forms to be downloadable from the internet in advance, to be dropped off with the baby. Some parents know well before the birth that they will be using the safe haven.

When available, such information helps assist in the immediate placement of the child, helps clarify adoption decisions and helps the adjustment of the child as he matures. But at no time should the law extend undue pressure for history-taking, to the point where the safe haven goal is compromised.

We need to implement a federal safe-haven law in Canada. To foreclose the possibility of prosecution prior to a criminal investigation is inexplicable. To foreclose the legal and social prevention of that crime is unconscionable.