Havens for abandoned babies occupy tricky terrain

By Lorna Collier
Published February 18, 2001 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family section)


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 Feb. 6.
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 have this?'"

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 through enough."

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 history."

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," said Martin.

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 Martin.

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 Collier

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