News Law and Policy

New York Proposes Teaching About “Safe Haven” Laws In School

Robin Marty

Recent actions involving harm to babies of teen moms has the health department moving for more education on how to give over an unwanted child.

Two recent cases of moms attempting to harm babies that they didn’t want has health officials in New York discussing the possibility of educating students about the state’s “safe haven” laws as part of the curriculum.

Via NBC New York:

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, State Sen. Eric Adams and State Assemblyman Hakim Jeffries are proposing state legislation requiring the change to high school health curriculum.

The officials envision students being taught in public school about so-called “safe haven laws,” which allow a parent to leave a newborn anonymously without prosecution as long as the newborn is abandoned in a safe way.

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Parents do not face charges if they bring a newborn to a hospital, police station or fire station that is staffed.

Safe Haven laws are put in place to allow a new mother to turn over a baby, no questions asked, in order to save him or her from harm.  But with the push from many not to even discuss sex in schools, much less ways to avoid pregnancy, is it more likely that they will allow “ditching newborns” into the lesson plans?

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: New York City Doesn’t Really Have a Masturbation Booth

Martha Kempner

This Week In Sex: Sex education gets controversial in Omaha, senior men need a refresher course on HIV risk, a new sex toy helps strengthen pelvic floor muscles, and NYC's masturbation booth is just a marketing gimmick.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

School Board Meetings Get Heated as Omaha Updates Sex Ed for First time in 30 Years

For the first time in about three decades, the school district in Omaha, Nebraska, is updating its sexuality education program. In addition to including new scientific research on growth, development, and medications, the proposed curriculum includes discussions of gender identity and gender roles starting in sixth grade, a lesson on sexual orientation beginning in seventh grade, and information about abortion and emergency contraception in the tenth grade lessons on birth control. All of these topics had been previously excluded from the program.

Most members of the community seem to be on board with the possible changes. In fact, of the nearly 4,000 community members who reached out to the school district via phone or email, reported local television station WOWT, 93 percent supported the overall shift. But at recent school board meetings, the small minority who disapproved were very vocal, to say the least.

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Kathryn Russell, a former employee of the Omaha school district, argued that the change “rapes children of their innocence.” Another speaker bemoaned, “Marriages never make it into the picture of sex education in the schools.”

Still, school administrators argued that many of those opposing the changes were not actually members of the community.

School member Marque Snow told WOWT in December, “So that is the thing with controversial topics like this, is when you do open that up to the public, you get people who aren’t from the district or aren’t from the community commenting … and it kinda skews that view a little bit.”

Despite the controversy, at a meeting this week, the board voted unanimously to approve the changes to the fourth-grade, fifth-grade, and middle school curricula. The changes to the tenth-grade program were also approved with a vote of 8 to 1. Though the board had considered removing information on abortion and emergency contraception from the lesson plans, the package voted on this week still included these topics.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with the board’s decision. Gwen Easton, a mother in the district, told WOWT, “I don’t think they spoke for 52,000 kids or their parents. I don’t. I think that they had their minds made up all along to what they were going to decide to do and it doesn’t matter whether parents like it or not because that is what they are telling parents: It doesn’t matter what they think.”

Older Men Who Pay for Sex Need Some Safer Sex Reminders

A survey of men who have paid for sex found that the older they were, the less likely they were to use condoms in those interactions.

Researchers from the University of Portland identified 208 men between the ages of 60 and 84 who had paid for sex and asked them about their sexual behavior, condom habits, and perceived risk of disease.

More than half of the men surveyed said they did not always use condoms with sex workers. Forgoing protection was most common when men were receiving manual masturbation or oral sex.

Many of the men did not perceive themselves to be at risk for sexually transmitted infections—three-quarters reported that they perceived their likelihood of becoming infected with HIV as “low” and only about 60 percent reported having been tested for HIV. However, the men who reported more unprotected sex acts did perceive their HIV risk to be higher.

In addition, 29 percent of the men reported having an “all-time favorite” sex worker with whom they had sex repeatedly. The researchers found that in these cases, men were more likely to engage in unprotected sexual intercourse. The lead study author noted in a statement, “There is a nearly universal perception that older men do not pay for, or even engage sexually with regular frequency. This view may contribute to a false sense of security for both clients and sex workers during their encounters, and may lead to less protective strategies than with younger purchasers of sex.”

Perhaps it’s time for a safer sex refresher course for, and about, seniors.

New Sex Toy Measures Pelvic Floor Strength

OhMiBod, a maker of high-end sex toys, recently released the Lovelife Krush exerciser designed to help women strengthen their pelvic floors. Suki Dunhan, the company’s founder, explained in a statement that most women lose strength in these muscles due to childbirth or just age. She added: “Our Lovelife Krush measures the pressure, control, endurance, and grip of [pubococcygeus muscles] and helps women strengthen them through training challenges.” This, she said, “can lead to stronger, more intense orgasms.”

The device, a small bulb inserted into the vagina, is Bluetooth-enabled and comes with access to an app that sets goals and guides users through a pelvic floor workout, during which they squeeze and release muscles.

Strong pelvic floor muscles not only aid in orgasm; they can also help women overcome issues such as vulvodynia and incontinence.

New York City’s New “Masturbation Booth” Is Nothing More Than a Marketing Gimmick

There have been a number of stories this week about a new “masturbation booth” being installed in New York City. The “GuyFi” booth was originally announced in a press release by the sex toy company Hot Octopuss. Adam Lewis, the company’s co-founder, said in the release, “At Hot Octopuss we are all about looking for new solutions to improve everyday life and we feel we’ve done just that with the new GuyFi booth. We hope the city’s men enjoy using the space we’ve created in whatever way they want.”

The structure consists of a phone booth modified with a wireless connection, black curtain, chair, laptop, and a Hot Octopuss ad.

Of course, public masturbation is illegal in New York City. As questions mounted about how real this was, the company backpedaled a bit. A spokesperson told Mashable: “We may be insinuating that these booths could be used in whichever way anyone would like to ‘self soothe,’ but the brand is not actively encouraging people to masturbate in public as that is an illegal offense.”

If the goal was publicity, this campaign was a success. If the goal was to create a good place for men to masturbate during the workday, well, they’re just going to have to keep looking.

Commentary Human Rights

Dilemma Faced in ‘Orange Is the New Black’ All Too Real for Mothers Behind Bars

Victoria Law

In the newly released season of Orange Is the New Black, Daya Diaz must grapple with whether she should give her baby up for adoption or have the newborn go into foster care as she finishes her 36-month sentence. Diaz's plight reflects the real-life situation of incarcerated mothers around the country.

With its release to Netflix on Friday, the new season of Orange Is the New Black will be coming to the small screen. Among the plot points left open last year is the plight of Daya Diaz (played by Dascha Polanco), who was impregnated in the first season, as she tries to figure out where her baby will live after birth. Immediate family is out: Her own mother is incarcerated in the same prison, her father has been out of her life since she was a toddler, and the baby’s father is a correctional officer who risks his own prison sentence if he confesses to parenthood. Diaz must grapple with whether she should give her baby up for adoption or have the newborn go into foster care as she finishes her 36-month sentence.

Sadly, Diaz’s dilemma is all too real for many mothers behind bars. As Sharona Coutts and Zoe Greenberg investigated as part of their Women, Incarcerated series, thousands of incarcerated mothers whose children are in foster care risk losing custody each year. In 1997, then-President Clinton signed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) into law, requiring that states begin proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child is in foster care for 15 out of 22 months. If states did not comply, they risked losing federal funding. Parents can fight the termination, but must prove that they are doing everything in their power to maintain a relationship with their children. And for many women in prison, the institution’s distance from their children’s home, the high price of collect calls, and the reluctance of caregivers to bring children to visit makes proving their continued involvement an uphill battle.

In some states, parents who have formerly been in jail or prison—including the federal prison that inspired the one in Orange Is the New Black—and their allies have united to attempt to combat this cycle of injustice. Still, they face nearly a decade of precedents that have set up countless obstacles for women trying to preserve custody of their children beyond their sentencing.

A Ticking Clock

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When ASFA was passed, only two states—Nebraska and New Mexico—recognized that children may be in foster care because of parental incarceration and made exceptions to the “15 out of 22 month” rule for those cases. But in other states, once a child entered foster care, the clock starts.

That’s what Alise Hegle, whose story appeared in Truthout and other outlets in 2013, learned when she was arrested a month after giving birth to her daughter in Washington state. With her newborn in foster care, she had to try to attend custody hearings from behind bars, an undertaking that involved having jail officers transport her to family court, wait for the hearing, and then escort her back. She ended up missing a family court hearing.

Fortunately, the family court judge noticed her absence. Not only did he issue a court order requiring that the jail transport her to family court proceedings, but, according to Hegle, he also appointed her an attorney. That made all the difference. Hegle, whose daughter is now 6, has been a full-time mother since her daughter was 17 months old.

Meanwhile, when a woman named Chandra entered a Washington prison in February 2012, her two daughters were placed in foster care. Like Hegle, she faced a lack of resources and information about family law and her rights as a parent with children in foster care. Prison officials, she says, refused to help.

Recalling her experiences under her first name only in a piece for the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison, Chandra wrote that, at the beginning of her prison sentence, her 13-year-old daughter said during a phone call, “Child Protective Services said I should just allow the adoption to take place because your mom has a lot on her plate when she gets out and she don’t need you!”

But Chandra would not let her children go without a fight. She kept meticulous documentation of each time the foster family rejected her collect calls, of every postage stamp she bought to mail her daughters a letter, and each time the foster family did not bring her daughters to visit. Armed with this documentation, she showed the family court that she was doing her best to stay involved. She did not lose custody and, upon her release, the family was reunited.

Not every story ends so happily, however. A 2003 study found that termination proceedings involving incarcerated parents increased nationwide from 260 in 1997, the year ASFA was passed, to 909 in 2002. During the five years before ASFA’s passage, the number of termination proceedings had increased from 113 in 1992 to 142 in 1996. As Sharona Coutts and Zoe Greenberg reported, nearly 60,000 of the 402,000 children in foster care in 2013 were waiting to be adopted after the rights of their living parents (both in prison and not in prison) had been terminated. Termination is more likely to affect mothers than fathers—as Coutts and Greenberg also noted, a 2013 study of parents incarcerated in New York State found that 17 percent of mothers had lost parental rights compared to 10 percent of fathers.

The Changing Tide

In several states, parents who have experienced both incarceration and the threat of losing their children have organized to change this situation. Beginning in 2007, prison advocacy and monitoring group the Correctional Association of New York began working with legislators and advocates, including formerly incarcerated mothers, to pass the ASFA Expanded Discretion Bill, which allows foster care agencies not to file for termination of parental rights if the child is in foster care because the parent is or has previously been in prison or a residential drug treatment program. Mothers in prison also added their voices—the Long Termers Committee, consisting of women serving lengthy or life sentences, at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, put together an 80-page memorandum in support of the bill with handwritten testimonies by mothers, some of whom had experienced foster care and permanent separation from their own mothers as children.

The memorandum also contained copies of letters and drawings from the women’s children demonstrating how much they loved and needed their mothers to remain in their lives. “Dear Mom, I can’t wait to see you,” wrote one child. Another drew a picture of two figures in a circle of hearts.

Outside of prison, formerly incarcerated parents spoke about their own experiences of struggling against the ASFA timeline at public events and to press. They helped create a photo slideshow illustrating the bill’s importance. They drove to Albany for a series of advocacy days. In 2010, their efforts were successful, and the bill was signed into law. However, as the aforementioned 2013 study shows, mothers behind bars still face barriers to proving that they are meaningfully engaged in their children’s lives and avoiding permanent loss of their children.

The ASFA Expanded Discretion Bill affected more than parents in New York state. Across the country, Lillian Hewko, then a law student, learned about it and decided that parents incarcerated in Washington state needed similar protections. The following year as a new attorney, Hewko began working with Legal Voice, a women’s legal organization that had helped pass Washington’s 2010 anti-shackling legislation, on what would become SHB 1284, or the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill.

Like the ASFA Expanded Discretion Bill, SHB 1284 gave courts the discretion to delay termination of parental rights if the parent’s imprisonment or previous imprisonment is the reason for the child’s continued foster care placement. Hewko partnered with parents who had previous child welfare involvement to raise awareness and gain support for the bill. Hegle was one such parent. She and others told their stories again and again—to organizations that work with children, on radio shows, and even at their children’s schools. They drove to Olympia to testify before the legislature about their experiences—and the importance of maintaining family connections.

They succeeded. On May 8, 2013, the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill was signed into law.

Massachusetts’ New Initiative

Now, in Massachusetts, formerly incarcerated women are taking a different approach—pushing to keep primary caregivers out of prison altogether. Andrea James is the director of Families for Justice as Healing, an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated women. She is also a mother who spent 18 months at the Federal Correction Institution, Danbury—the institution now made famous by Orange Is the New Black—and the force behind HB 1382, which would provide community-based alternatives to incarceration for primary caregivers. In Massachusetts, 66 to 75 percent of women behind bars are mothers to dependent children; most of these are single parents.

HB 1382, sponsored by Massachusetts House Rep. Russell E. Holmes (D-Boston), pushes the courts to determine whether a person who has been convicted of a non-violent offense is a primary caregiver of a child under 18. If that person is, the court will sentence that person to an alternative to incarceration “based on community rehabilitation, with a focus on parent-child unity and support.”

The bill, James said, grew out of a number of kitchen-table conversations with formerly incarcerated women and their families across the state. Recognizing that many people lack transportation or the money to access it, James and other members will visit formerly incarcerated women and their families in their homes.

“Usually, we show up and there are two or three other mothers and grandmothers at the table,” she explained in an interview with Rewire. There, they talk about the effects of mass incarceration—and how to challenge them. James said that she and Families for Justice as Healing also reach out to women who don’t have homes, conducting workshops at day shelters and other areas where women who have been incarcerated end up after leaving jail or prison.

As of May 4, 1,277 women were behind bars in Massachusetts. Had courts been pushed to consider those individuals’ roles in caring for children, that number would likely be much lower. A 2008 study found that only 15 percent of women in the state’s jails and sole women’s prison were incarcerated for actions involving violence. If the same percentage holds true today, hundreds of mothers could be diverted from prison to community alternatives—and get to maintain custody of their children.

“It’s a really critical element that’s not being asked at sentencing—is this person responsible for their children? What is their absence going to mean for those children?” said James.

HB 1382 is currently before the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts state legislature. As they await a hearing date, the women helping to push it are preparing their testimonies. Some have lost custody of their children because of their incarceration. Some have lost their parents to addiction and incarceration. Some have been on both ends: James told the story of a woman named Diana McGuire, who was placed in foster care because of her own parents’ addiction and incarceration. As an adult, she has been in and out of prison for more than 17 years, losing custody of her own children in the process. Now, says James, McGuire is determined to make a difference for other families facing similar situations and is preparing to share her own painful experiences to illustrate the bill’s importance.

For her and other women, this will be their first time before the legislature. They’ve been meeting to practice what to say during the three minutes each speaker is allotted—and they’ve supported one another as they share their experiences over and over again. “There’s not a dry eye in the room by the end of it,” describes James. “But there’s also a lot of hugging, there’s a lot of encouraging.”

Working on the bill isn’t only about enabling parents to stay out of prison, giving their children stable support systems, and avoiding possible termination of custody. It’s also about trying to change public perceptions of women who are incarcerated, says James.

James noted that poverty, under-education, racism and, in many cases, addiction are factors in women’s incarceration. While the bill does not address all of these underlying issues, the discussion surrounding HB 1382 brings the topics into conversations about criminal justice and parenting. “We’re trying to shift the paradigm of the ‘bad mother.’ Even women who are struggling with addiction are doing their best to parent,” James said.

Recognizing the destruction that imprisonment wreaks on individuals, families, and communities, James explained, “Our goal is to reduce the incarceration of women. So everything we do starts from there and we try to figure out how to accomplish that.”


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