Skip to comments.Safe Haven For Abandoned Babies: Causing More Harm Than Good? (New term - "neonaticide")
Posted on 03/09/2006 3:53:41 PM PST by Libloather
Safe Haven For Abandoned Babies: Causing More Harm Than Good?
By Jesse Hyde
Tim Jaccard looked at the dead baby curled in the toilet bowl and cursed God.
The Nassau County paramedic was supposed to be on his way home to comfort his stepdaughter. She had called him at work, crying because she could not get pregnant. Minutes after he hung up, the call came to respond to the women's restroom in the lobby of the First District Court in Hempstead, Long Island.
"My daughter can't get pregnant and somebody throws their baby away," he remembered thinking in the summer of 1997.
Jaccard scooped the newborn from the toilet bowl and cradled her body in his arms. He had seen scenes more grisly, but this one broke his heart. He started to cry.
The baby would have a proper burial, he decided. But because unclaimed corpses belong to the state, it took Jaccard three months to get custody. He named her Angelica Hope, and he buried her beneath a pink granite headstone at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale. The next year he would bury seven more unwanted babies in coffins the size of shoeboxes.
Soon Jaccard was on a mission - first to bury New York's abandoned babies and then to save them.
Three years ago he helped write New York's "safe haven law," which allows mothers to leave newborns at a hospital, police station, or other designated place, anonymously and without fear of prosecution. All but five states have similar laws.
Jaccard, 56, said the law has greatly reduced the number of babies found abandoned in New York City - from six found dead in 2000 to zero in 2002.
In the last three years, 36 babies have been rescued by his program, Children of Hope. This year he has already convinced six girls who called his crisis line (877-796-HOPE) to not abandon their babies.
"Instead of leaving babies in dumpsters and garbage cans, they're leaving them in safe places, and that's what matters," he said. Once the baby is medically stable, the state's Office of Children and Family Services places it with a foster family.
But critics say safe haven laws may be doing more harm than good by promising anonymity to women who abandon their babies. The laws encourage women to abandon babies who would have otherwise kept them or placed them in adoption, said Adam Pertman, director of the Massachusetts-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Last year, Pertman's group released a report critical of safe haven laws, saying they encourage irresponsible behavior and make it impossible for the infants to learn their family or medical history later in life.
"Girls call in who are perfectly lucid, who do not want to kill their babies, and they're being encouraged to place them at a safe haven," he said. "Those are children who could've been placed in adoption. We're more than just implicitly encouraging abandonment, we're explicitly encouraging it."
No one knows for sure how many babies are abandoned each year in the United States. The best assessment comes from an unpublished 1999 report by the Department of Health and Human Services. The report found that 108 infants were abandoned in 1998 out of 4 million births. By comparison, 65 were abandoned in 1991. But the study, which was based on newspaper articles, concluded the apparent increase could have been the result of increased media attention to the problem.
Because New York State does not keep an official count of how many babies are abandoned each year, it is difficult to determine how effective the July 2000 safe haven law has been. Before the law, Jaccard said there were about 55 reported cases of babies found abandoned in the state each year. That number has dropped to about 14 a year, he said.
Opponents of the law say more babies have been found dead in New York State than left at safe havens since the law passed how. Marley Greiner, director of the adoption advocacy group Bastard Nation, scans national headlines daily in search of abandoned baby stories. She compiles them in an e-mail sent to journalists she calls "Baby Dump News."
By her count, 36 babies have been abandoned in the state since the law passed, and only 6 were placed in safe havens. Nineteen of the 36 were found dead. Between December of 2000 and March of 2001, seven babies were found dead in New York City including one thrown out a window in Washington Heights another dumped in a sewer in Queens, and a third left in a vacant Bronx lot.
Last year of 10 babies found abandoned, seven of them dead. Only two were placed in safe havens. Because there is no official count, both Greiner and Jaccard rely on the same information source to compile statistics: newspaper clippings.
In other states, results have been mixed. In California, for instance, 20 babies were left at designated safe havens between 2001 and 2002 and 38 were found abandoned. Seventeen of the abandoned babies died, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in Louisiana, no one has taken advantage of the state's safe haven law since it passed three years ago. Eleven babies have been abandoned in public places during the same period.
"The law isn't working, and the press and legislature have no idea what's really going on, because the safe haven system doesn't ask questions, doesn't collect data, is anonymous, and doesn't have to be accountable to the public," Greiner said.
Jaccard said the law isn't as effective as it could be because most girls don't know about it. To combat this problem, he regularly makes presentations at high school and college campuses.
Those who oppose the safe haven laws say they don't work because girls who abandon their babies aren't in a state of mind to find a safe place for the baby.
"If you're freaked out, you're not asking your boyfriend to take you to the fire station," said Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "It just doesn't stand to reason that someone would do that."
Most women who abandon their babies panic after giving birth, according to research by Michelle Oberman, a DePaul University law professor who studied 37 infanticide cases occurring between 1990 and 1999.
"It's not at all clear that those reached by safe haven laws are the same girls as those who would otherwise have committed neonaticide," Oberman explained by e-mail.
Oberman's research found that women who commit infanticide are often young, single, and in denial about their pregnancies. They come from every ethnicity and social class. Some are dropouts, others straight-A students. They are most often scared someone will find out they are pregnant, and they usually feel alone.
Many of the women who call the crisis line operated by Project Cuddle in Costa Mesa, California-the largest organization in the country that tries to prevent infanticide- do not believe they are pregnant.
"They don't rub their bellies, they don't waddle when they walk," said Project Cuddle director Debbe Magnusen. "They don't accept it because emotionally they can't handle it."
When these women deliver they are often surprised by the birth. Margeret Spinelli, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied neonaticide, has said many of these women describe giving birth as if they were watching a play.
Sherri Evans (not her real name) thought of abandoning her baby six years ago. Evans was 20 years old when she got pregnant for the second time. After her first child, her parents had told her they would throw her out if she got pregnant again. Even though this pregnancy was the result of rape, Evans was too afraid to tell her parents, so she hid it by wearing baggy clothes and saying she was gaining weight. She planned on delivering the baby in secret and leaving it somewhere.
"I didn't know what to do with the baby and I really didn't care what happened to it," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I didn't care one way or the other. I didn't eat right, I was still working 40 hours a week, doing heavy lifting. I didn't care what happened to the baby."
Evans saw a segment on Project Cuddle on the news and decided to call the hotline. The first few times she called, she was so nervous she immediately hung up. Finally, she mustered the courage to talk.
Magnusen flew her to California, where Evans had the baby and put it up for adoption. She flew back home without her family knowing about the incident, and to this day, they don't know. Evans said she is happy with her decision, and that without the help of Project Cuddle, she probably would have abandoned the baby.
Perhaps the harshest criticism of safe haven laws comes from adoption advocates who say the anonymity the law affords robs abandoned children of ever discovering their personal and medical histories later in life.
"Many people who are adopted feel this great void. You don't have any history or heritage," said Greiner of Bastard Nation. "You feel as if you were born under a rock or dropped off by a space alien. You have a right to know where you came from."
Sharon Edinger, 38, grew up knowing she was adopted, but knew nothing else about her history. A few years ago she wanted to find out more, so she packed up her two kids and boarded a train for Philadelphia, where she was adopted. She had made several calls to the Catholic Charities office through which her parents had adopted her, but no one would answer her questions. When she arrived in Philadelphia she found out why. The nuns gave her a police report and a yellowed newspaper article that told her story: a baby girl with red hair was found on church pew wrapped in a yellow blanket. A woman found the crying baby and took her into the rectory. There was nothing more.
The realization that she had been abandoned as a newborn devastated her. She had to go outside to catch her breath.
In the years since, Edinger says she has moved on. But she still wonders occasionally about her history. It bothers her that when she fills out a medical form she must leave much of it blank.
"The safe haven laws are wrong, you should at least get your medical history," she said.
On the other side of the debate are people who adopted children through safe haven programs. Donna McCann and her husband Tim had been trying to adopt a child for a year and a half when Jaccard called to tell them a girl in his program had chosen them from a long list of people hoping to adopt. Girls who call Jaccard's hotline and choose to place their babies for adoption can either work through an adoption agency or flip through a binder Jaccard keeps in his office full of names of parents looking to adopt.
"I was shocked, I didn't believe it," Donna, 41, said. "I cried for months after we got her. To finally have this beautiful, blue-eyed girl. She's just so perfect." McCann doesn't think their daughter Kaitlin will ever want to know who her birth mother is. As far as she's concerned, she is Kaitlin's mother.
"His organization is wonderful," she said of Jaccard. "So many babies have been saved. If it wasn't for him, I don't think we'd have a baby right now."
Pictures of babies Jaccard says he has saved cover a bulletin board in his office. In the center is Kaitlin.
Jaccard usually brushes off criticisms of the safe haven laws with a smile. If the law saves the life of one child, he said, it is worth it, whatever irresponsible behavior may or may not be encouraged. Jaccard said anonymity is essential and that the law wouldn't work without it.
Each year his crisis line gets about 2,000 calls. Most - he estimates 70 percent - decide to keep the baby and raise it with the help of their family. Another 20 percent decide to place the baby in adoption, and a final 10 percent decide to leave the baby in a safe haven anonymously.
The three women who abandoned their babies in February in Harlem, Staten Island and Brooklyn had all called Jaccard's crisis line. He had told them how to properly leave their babies in safe havens, and even though they didn't follow his instructions precisely, he considered the three incidents a success because all three babies were found alive. But according to the state's safe haven law, all three cases were classified as illegal abandonment. One was left alone in a hallway of a prenatal clinic, another in a hospital bathroom sink and one on the stoop of an apartment building.
"The babies are all safe, that's what matters," Jaccard said. "We're not going to question the mother, this is how she decided to do it."
Jaccard is currently working with five girls who are hiding their pregnancy. They are so afraid their parents will find out, Jaccard plans to put them up in hotels when they are about to go in labor. Sometimes girls who are afraid family or friends will become suspicious if they disappear for a few days refuse Jaccard's offer of a hotel room. For these girls, Jaccard must go to them when they page him.
He said he delivered three babies last year - one in an abandoned car under elevated subway tracks in Jamaica, Queens, another in the Bronx off Grand Concourse Avenue, and a third on a boulder in Central Park.
"When we are dealing with a young adult, they make mistakes," he said. "And if we don't aid them they will be in more serious trouble when the baby is found abandoned."
Jaccard said he is still haunted by the image of the image of finding Angelica Hope six years ago. He lives each day hoping he never has to bury another abandoned baby.
"Are the laws working?" he said. "A lot of girls are still fearful of coming forward. But I think we're making a difference. To me, if we save one baby it's worth it."
Jaccard you keep on going,thank you,fatima
I have 2 very close friends in different states that are adopted. I have discussed this subject with each of them at length, especially after we came mothers ourselves, and they both say the exact same thing. As far as they are concerned they have loving parents and they don't feel that void that other peopole talk about. They believe their families are the people who raised them. In fact both have said they would never betray their parents by looking for their birth families.
Exactly. I'm 50 years old and I come from the era of closed adoptions. I've left large amounts of medical forms blank all my life, because I simply don't have the information. It's not a big deal.
You can add my vote to theirs. In fact, my mother asked once if I wanted to find my "parents". I said as far as I was concerned, the people who had done the work were my parents. I don't know that I see it as a "betrayal", but in my experience people go looking for their biological parents when they somehow feel something is missing from their adoptive experience.
How many of these really immature young women even know their own medical history, their family's medical history, OR the medical history of the FATHER of the baby? There is more than one piece to the puzzle.
Sorry. Results count and they definately have some good results here. If the organizations like, THEY can put the child up for adoption.
Thanks for the ping!
February is nine months after May. Spring Break is March/April. Probably more like nine months after Prom.
do you think things would be better WITHOUT contraception?