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Unwanted newborns provided with havens

Cities, hospitals and other groups - some local - have devised ways and means for distraught mothers to abandon their babies safely and anonymously while avoiding trouble with the law

Sunday, August 20, 2000

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In Germany, they call it the "Klappe" -- German for mail slot.

But the 12- by 28-inch hatch in the outside wall of a Hamburg clinic has received only one little package since opening in April: a 6-pound baby girl.

In Mobile, Ala., there's no such contraption, but six infants have been retrieved as part of a Secret Safe Place program providing mothers a chance to give up their unwanted babies with no questions asked.

In Texas, not a single baby has been turned in to a designated emergency medical provider in the year since a much-heralded law was passed offering clemency for mothers. During that same year seven babies were found abandoned in Houston, alone, one of them dead.

Such mixed results beg the question: "Do these 'safe havens' really work?"

The answer, from many child advocates, is always the same.

"If we save one baby, that's all that matters," said a spokeswoman for Sternipark, the Hamburg charitable organization that received its first infant in June. The child was named Anna and given up for adoption.

But other advocates, health providers and law enforcement officials wonder if the efforts, however well-meaning, are merely superficial approaches to societal problems too big to be solved so neatly.

"We're not for or against [safe havens]," said Joyce Johnston, a spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America, which represents 1,000 social service agencies. "But we do have some concerns about the effectiveness of some of these programs, which don't seem to get at real issues, like prevention."

Those doubts haven't stopped the stampede in 28 states, including Pennsylvania, to pass legislation granting amnesty to mothers who abandon their newborns in a safe place. Many municipalities haven't waited for state action: Besides Mobile, communities in California, New York and Minnesota have started their own programs, and later this week, Mayor Murphy's office will unveil a plan for Pittsburgh.

Since biblical times, mothers have abandoned their babies. And there have always been "foundling" homes to take care of them. But never have so many news reports documented, often in horrifying detail, the fate of some of these infants -- placed in trash bins or toilets or freezers by troubled, terrified mothers, some of them still children themselves.

Nearly 5 percent of all infant homicides between 1983 and 1991 occurred during the first day of life, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the highest risks were associated with women who were younger than 15 years old.

"The few girls and women I've met who've [abandoned a baby] say it's a very traumatic experience for them," said Judith Hay, a spokeswoman for Children's Protective Services in the Houston area. "They say they didn't want to disappoint people; they say, 'Oh, he would have left me if I told anyone,' or 'I hoped it would go away.' In their language, it's a thing, an 'it,' not a baby. Something to get rid of.' "

Statistics incomplete

At a time when the teen pregnancy rate is at its lowest in 60 years, public revulsion about the tiny fraction of castoff babies appears to be rising. But experts caution that this doesn't mean that the actual number of abandonments is increasing dramatically.

No formal statistics are kept, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says there were 108 news media reports of abandoned babies in 1998, up from 65 in 1991.

But many who work with young mothers think the numbers of lost children may be much higher.

"For every baby that's found, think about those [who] were successfully drowned or buried, lost forever; and there's this mother you never hear about with that terrible secret she carries around for the rest of her life," said Mary Winter, a director at Mom's House on the North Side, which provides support services for pregnant unwed mothers. "It just breaks your heart."

The federal government does track the number of "boarder babies" left in hospitals by women who are HIV-positive or addicted to drugs, estimating their numbers at about 20,000 a year, although statewide and locally, such figures are hard to come by.

Locally, there are cases in which mothers do walk away after giving birth, but hospitals don't appear to keep statistics about them. Officials at Magee-Womens Hospital say there have been no incidents of patients abandoning their infants, (although a baby was left in Magee's parking lot a few years ago). Most women have made adoption arrangements prior to or during their stays in the hospital, a spokeswoman said.

At St. Francis Medical Center, which cares for "boarder babies" of drug addicted mothers, "it does happen from time to time," said Sister Ellen McClure, vice president for mission and ministry. "But most often it's a case where addicted babies stay on longer than the mothers and then go home later."

About a dozen babies have been abandoned in the Pittsburgh region during the past 25 years, enough to prompt Gigi Kelly, a mother of three, to begin the Baskets for Babies program last year. So far, the baskets her 600 members leave out on their front porches have remained empty.

"No, we haven't had any babies, but that doesn't make me stop what I'm doing," she said. "If we could get together a comprehensive program that interlocks all aspects of the communities, clinics to the churches to people inside their homes, then maybe we can make this stop."

Kelly's efforts to place the baskets in the city's 35 fire stations stalled after City Council members and Police Chief Robert McNeilly raised concerns about liability and whether such a program implicitly encouraged abandonment.

Instead, for the past year, Murphy's staff has been designing an alternative, and on Wednesday, the mayor will unveil a local safe haven program operated by four area hospitals -- Magee, Mercy Hospital, St. Francis Medical Center and Allegheny General Hospital -- coupled with an advertising campaign to alert would-be mothers about their options.

A-Hand-To-Hold, a local nonprofit organization, is in the process of raising funds to finance the ad campaign, says its founder, Patricia Weaver.

But even if the money is raised, will the program successfully reach the mother who's disoriented or distraught after the birth of an unwanted baby?

"We once found a newborn in a picnic basket under a porch in East Liberty, where the mother had placed a bottle and a rattle," said Cmdr. Gwen Elliott, head of the Pittsburgh Police's Sex Assault and Family Crisis Unit. "She wanted to do the right thing, but she wasn't reality-based. The idea of coming someplace to drop off her baby... I don't think that would have occurred to her."

And some wonder if the time and money would be better spent trying to encourage women to seek prenatal care, educate them about adoption options, or provide emergency contraception.

"A lot of these pregnancies could have been prevented if the individual had received contraceptive services before becoming pregnant," said Dr. Donald Marazzo, associate medical director of the Family Health Council, a nonprofit agency that provides counseling services to pregnant women.

A massive advertising campaign might be better directed "when you could use those same community outreach efforts to heighten awareness of contraception as well as emergency contraception to prevent these unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

Distrust in the 'system'

Another possible roadblock to a safe haven program is that many of the girls and women affected simply fear the "system" too much.

"I don't know there's a lot of trust with the hospitals," Elliott said. "If these girls did trust them, why didn't they come in for prenatal care in the first place? I would much rather see that money used to promote something like Healthy Start or to reach out to women in the community to encourage them to go for counseling if they don't think they can keep this baby."

Indeed, those who have already tried to reach out have found that a challenging task.

In Houston, 75 billboards were mounted around the city advertising the program -- to no avail. Even the officials who administer it are discouraged.

"I hate to say it's a failure. We don't really know yet," said Judith Hay, a spokeswoman for Harris County Child Protective Services, which administers Houston's program. "But I also don't think, personally, anyone is looking at that law when they're getting ready to abandon their baby."

"We don't really know who these women are. There just isn't any good data or research on this. What is her state of mind? What kind of law would prevent her from becoming a criminal?"

In fact, fear of criminal sanctions may be one reason that Texas' program isn't working. Its law provides an affirmative defense to mothers who safely abandon their babies -- but not total immunity from prosecution, and that may be scaring off some mothers, says John Tyson, district attorney for Mobile, Ala., the first community in the country to implement such a program.

Mobile's ad campaign -- "Don't Panic! There is a SECRET Safe Place for Newborns" -- emphasizes anonymity and no prosecution, as long as the baby shows no signs of abuse. In Texas, Tyson said, "You might get charged, but then if you prove you abandoned the baby in a safe way, they might not go forward. In my opinion, it is the upfront questions that are frightening a potential participant away."

The two bills before the Pennsylvania Senate differ slightly. One, sponsored by Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, would permit babies under 16 days old to be left with emergency medical personnel without fear of prosecution; the second, sponsored by Sen. Melissa Hart, R-McCandless, would extend the amnesty period to 30 days and designate hospitals, police stations and other facilities as safe havens. Churches, for example, could volunteer to accept infants.

While some proponents, such as Tyson, say only medical personnel should receive infants, Hart says she included police stations because they're staffed 24 hours a day, and are more available than medical centers in rural areas.

But she also notes that only healthy babies will be accepted without question.

"If a baby is 2 weeks old with cigarette burns, this bill will in no way protect anyone from prosecution," she said.

While safe haven legislation has been generally supported by both anti-abortion organizations and family planning groups, conservatives have blocked passage in some states, including Georgia, where one legislator called the proposal "abortion without death." Another claimed it would "whitewash irresponsibility," leading to legal dumping of babies who are deformed or colicky -- or simply the wrong gender.

And groups that favor open-record adoptions claim that safe haven laws could lead to a proliferation of babies with no medical histories, and with no knowledge of who their parents are.

But St. Francis' McClure feels comfortable about participating in Pittsburgh's program.

"It's the right thing to do. At a mission level, it makes sense: to intervene, to offer these mothers alternatives to Dumpsters.

"As was said in St. Paul's letters to the Galatians, 'Against these things there can be no law.' "

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