'Safe Abandonment' Drive Spreads

Thursday, May 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Barbara Knott was abandoned as a newborn, left in a basement in New York City by a mother who couldn't care for her and had already given away other children.

Knott's story took a happier turn: She ended up far away from Manhattan, a child of adoptive parents in Mobile.

Now 38 and with two teen-aged sons of her own, Knott fully supports a movement that started in Mobile and has spread across the country to allow mothers to anonymously give up their newborns at hospitals.

``I would love to meet them, so they don't feel guilty,'' Knott says of what are often troubled and confused young mothers.

At least 28 states have either adopted or are considering ``safe abandonment'' legislation this year alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The drive started in Mobile after the 1995 death of a newborn boy who was drowned in a toilet by a young, unwed mother. Local television reporter Jodi Brooks, who covered the 1998 murder trial and the abandonment of other newborns along the Gulf Coast, became outraged.

She got together officials from area hospitals, welfare offices and the district attorney, who agreed not to prosecute women abandoning their infants. The result was a policy allowing mothers to drop off newborns at Mobile-area hospitals within 72 hours of birth, no questions asked. That proposal was later adopted by prosecutors across the state — and emulated across the country.

``Relinquishing a newborn in the safe environment of an emergency room is not child abuse or child neglect,'' says chief assistant prosecutor George Ward in Wayne County, Mich., where the program is in place.

However, some child welfare advocates say it has drawbacks, including encouraging mothers to abandon their children.

Dr. Charles Shubin, head of pediatrics for Mercy FamilyCare Community Health Center in Baltimore, Md., also says anonymous abandonment leaves the child without knowledge of possibly important genetic issues, and if the mother is already granted immunity there's no reason for her to remain nameless. Plus, he adds, it ``doesn't get the mom any help.''

Other critics have questioned how emergency workers would determine an infant's age or the role the mother's family or father plays.

It's unclear how many newborns are abandoned every year.

Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says there were media reports of 105 infants abandoned in ``public places'' in 1998, including 33 who were dead. In 1991, the only other recent year for which figures were compiled, there were 65 infants abandoned in public places — eight of them dead.

Because the figures are based on media reports and are not compiled regularly, it's unknown whether the numbers reflect an increase over time, Kharfen says.

According to the NCSL, states that have approved or considered infant abandonment legislation this year include some of the most populous: California, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

Texas passed a law last year providing a favorable defense for a parent who voluntarily delivers a child 30 days old or younger to a licensed emergency medical services provider. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, has also proposed legislation that would create a federal database on abandoned babies in hopes of finding out what influences the decision by parents. Lee acted after 13 babies were abandoned in a 10-month span in her hometown of Houston; three were dead.

In Alabama, where state officials estimate that about a dozen newborns are abandoned annually, lawmakers passed a law May 12 allowing hospitals statewide to accept the children without a court order.

Since the program began in Mobile for infants less than three days old, one baby has been rescued from a trash pile, another two have been turned in at hospitals, and two girls — aged 13 and 14 — have received counseling that guided them through successful pregnancies.

Every small victory in the struggle to save lives counts for nurse Sara Robinson, who helps spread the word about the Safe Babies project.

She works at Springhill Hospital, where two infants were surrendered by troubled mothers — a girl named ``Precious'' in January 1999, followed by a boy who arrived Christmas Eve and was named ``Nick.''

The mother who dropped off Precious later returned for her, and, with the aid of social services agencies, has continued to raise the child, Robinson says.

Nick's mother never came back for her son; he was adopted on Valentine's Day.


On the Net: http://www.babymoses.org