Havens for abandoned babies occupy
By Lorna Collier
Published February 18, 2001 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family
Yadira Cholar had just finished her shift as a recovery room nurse at
USA Knollwood Park Hospital in Mobile, Ala., one afternoon last June.
She was on her way to her car when a woman, carrying what appeared to
be a small ball, came up to her in the parking lot.
"She said, `Will you take this?'" said Cholar, who accepted the little
bundle, only to discover that it contained a baby girl, weighing no
more than a pound and a half, who was ice cold, blue and bloody, with
her umbilical cord still attached and unclamped. To Cholar, a nurse
with 27 years' experience, the baby appeared dead.
The woman began to cry, according to Cholar, and said, "I can't keep
her, I can't keep her," before jumping in her car and driving away.
Cholar started running to the emergency room while giving
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, certain her efforts were futile.
Suddenly, the child let out a cry.
"I screamed, `This baby's alive!'" said Cholar.
Once in the emergency room, doctors were able to save "Baby Erin," who
spent several months in a neonatal intensive care unit before being
released to a foster family. Though Erin requires tube feedings and may
have other disabilities, Cholar said, the little girl--whom she visits
often--has improved greatly, smiles and looks around, and is "so
pretty" with long, jet-black hair.
"She's a blessing and a miracle," said Cholar.
Erin was left with Cholar under the auspices of Alabama's
newborn-abandonment law, a policy put in place statewide last spring
but in effect in Mobile since November 1998. This law allows mothers to
leave newborns with hospitals anonymously, without fear of legal
reprisal. The program's goal is to prevent unwanted babies from being
left to die in trash cans and alleys; supporters say it has saved eight
infants in Alabama since its inception.
Though statistics about infant abandonment are hard to come by, an
apparent rash of these crimes in recent years has led at least 15
states to set up similar "safe haven" laws, with another 17 states
considering such acts, said Justin Unruh, project director for Texas'
"Baby Moses" program, which in 1999 became the first such program in
the nation to be adopted on a statewide basis.
Illinois may soon be added to the tally of states with laws in place. A
group of northern Illinois volunteers spent much of last year working
on a newborn-abandonment law, which was introduced in the legislature
Dawn Geras, a Northbrook businesswoman, started Save Abandoned Babies
last March, after newspaper articles about the issue moved her to
tears. "I thought, `Isn't it an embarrassment that Illinois doesn't
About the same time, another group was forming with a similar focus,
led by Kathy Lanciloti of Melrose Park, whose inspiration was an Oprah
show about the topic. Lanciloti and Geras soon joined forces; in
September, a Rockford-area group also became part of the coalition.
One member of the Rockford-area group is Sue Moye, whose daughter Kelli
Moye abandoned her newborn baby in a next-door neighbor's yard in
Poplar Grove in 1996, when Kelli was 15.
Kelli's baby was found dead; the teen was convicted of involuntary
manslaughter in June, 2000, and received a four-year prison sentence,
which she is now serving. Kelli is expected to be released in May,
according to her mother.
Though Kelli declined an interview, Sue said her daughter supports
abandoned-baby laws. "She's all for them," said Sue. "She's really
looking forward to [Illinois's law] being passed."
However, if such a program had been in place, Sue can't say if Kelli
would have used it.
"Probably not," said Sue. "For her it might not have really done a lot
of good because of her age. She could not have driven anywhere, and she
had nobody with her to help her."
Still, Sue Moye believes in the value of baby-abandonment laws for all
those girls and women who are able to take advantage of them. "What
they have written up right now is really good," she said.
Baby-abandonment laws are not without their critics, however. Adoption
groups such as Bastard Nation, which advocates open adoptions, have
denounced these policies as representing "a radical change in child
welfare policy toward promoting rather than discouraging abandonment."
Others worry that not enough care is being taken to try to gather
essential medical background information or to ensure fathers' rights
are being protected.
"I think [abandoned-baby laws] are an easy, reflexive, politically
motivated, woefully insufficient response to a real problem," said Adam
Pertman, a Boston Globe reporter, adoptive father and author of
"Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America"
(Basic Books, $25).
Pertman said he doesn't want to see babies dead in trash cans any more
than anybody else does. But what he fears is that politicians, in a
rush to adopt popular laws that promise to save babies' lives, are
inadvertently creating a plethora of problems due to poorly designed
and inadequately studied programs.
"Insufficient hearings are held at state after state after state," said
Pertman. "They are just railroaded through. They are about saving
babies, and who can argue with someone who says `if it saves one baby's
life it will all have been worth it?' But we haven't thought this
Pertman is concerned that states aren't trying to figure out ways to
obtain medical information from parents who abandon babies. He also
questions whether the type of mothers who abandon infants to
garbage-can deaths would necessarily make use of a safe haven program.
"It almost never happens that a woman who would have abandoned her
child unsafely sees a safe haven and drops her baby there," he said.
"These young women are in denial, are frenzied, are out of their minds.
... The women who are dropping their children off at safe havens are
for the most part women who would have been prime candidates to go a
more traditional adoption route, where the child would have had
information and the mother would have gotten birth counseling."
Proponents of abandoned baby sites disagree.
"We recognize that we will not be able to reach every desperate mother,
but each desperate mother that we do reach makes it worth the work,"
said Unruh, noting that two babies have been saved in Texas since the
Baby Moses program began being publicized last August. "It is better to
have a baby safely delivered to an [emergency medical technician] with
no medical history than a baby found in a trash can with no medical
John Tyson Jr, district attorney in Mobile, Ala., in 1998 helped local
TV reporter Jodi Brooks found a local program that is credited by many
with sparking the nationwide move toward these laws. He points out that
not only has his state seen eight babies saved by his program, but
there also has been just one abandonment, and in that instance, the
baby was found alive.
One feature of the program--called "A Secret Safe Place for
Newborns"--is that pamphlets are available for mothers who drop off
their babies, asking for medical information to be provided either on
the spot or mailed in later.
Illinois' proposed law will have a similar provision to encourage
parents to report medical histories, said Chicago attorney Bill Martin,
who is drafting the law. This reporting won't be required, however, due
to concerns that some parents might not use the service if they felt
their anonymity would be compromised.
"The bottom line is we'd much rather end up with a live, healthy baby
than a dead one," said Lanciloti. "The history and medical background
are important to have ... but if they don't have it, the babies are
still very precious."
Save Abandoned Babies also has tried to hear as many different
viewpoints as possible in its nearly yearlong quest to come up with a
thorough bill. Geras notes that the group's meetings have been attended
by representatives from the Illinois Department of Children and Family
Services, adoption agencies and hospitals as well as judges,
legislators and other government officials.
"Anybody that had any interest in children or this issue was welcome,"
The resulting Newborn Abandoned Infant Protection Act would define
newborns as being 30 days or younger (a key issue, since some states
hold to a strict 72-hours-or-less standard, while some have stretched
the definition to include infants as old as a year). Babies could be
left by either parent at hospitals, emergency care facilities (such as
24-hour medical clinics) and manned fire departments. Babies could not
be part of this program if they show any signs of abuse, such as drugs
in their systems.
"You don't want to give a mechanism for parents to avoid responsibility
if they've abused a child," said Martin.
Measures to protect fathers' rights also will be addressed, said
Martin: A notice of the abandonment may be published, while authorities
will check Illinois' "Putative Father Registry" to see if any father
might have filed a claim on the child.
Under the proposed law, babies who qualify for the program would be
referred by DCFS to a local adoption agency, which would take immediate
custody of the child and begin the process of legally terminating
parental rights, a step that normally takes about 60 to 75 days, said
Sometimes, women who have abandoned their babies change their minds;
one of Alabama's mothers came back almost immediately to say she had
changed her mind, said Tyson. Child protective services returned the
child to the mother, who entered a high-school equivalency program and
also was helped to find a better, safer place to live.
Another time, a woman showed up at a hospital in labor, asking that her
infant be given over to the baby-abandonment program once it was born.
The father's family found out where the mother was when she made calls
from the hospital and the phone number was displayed on caller ID; the
family came to the hospital and retrieved the baby, said Tyson.
A previous abandoned baby bill was introduced early last year in
Illinois by state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), but it never got out
of committee; Save Abandoned Babies hopes its more comprehensive
legislation will fare better.
"Now that we do have a piece of legislation to present, we want
individual citizens to contact their representatives," said Geras.
Said Sue Moye: "It's badly needed. I think it's long overdue."
Copyright © 2001, Lorna