Baby left at hospital in first use of child abandonment program


 Tom Blackwell, National Post · Monday, Sept. 20, 2010

Someone opened a door at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, slipped a two-day-old baby into the bassinet on the other side and promptly walked out of the newborn’s life. Thirty seconds later, an alarm sounded inside, alerting emergency department staff to the new arrival, and giving the reluctant mother or father time to leave undetected and anonymously.

In doing so, he or she became the inaugural user of the first program in Canada that encourages parents to safely abandon unwanted children.

The safe-haven concept, lauded for protecting the most vulnerable and now under consideration in Alberta, has opened a debate on whether the program can really save babies in the most desperate circumstances.

St. Paul’s officials say the incident in mid-July — kept under wraps until now — has underlined for them the human value of the “Angel’s Cradle” project.

The baby would “without a doubt” have met a grimmer fate if not for the drop-off site, argues Dr. Geoffrey Cundiff, who supervises the project.

“It was somebody without means who … could not keep the baby,” said Dr. Cundiff, head of obstetrics and gynecology for Providence Health, which oversees St. Paul’s. “It was most likely an immigrant who didn’t have other options, and didn’t know what the alternatives were.”

To protect the baby patient’s confidentiality and the anonymity of the parents, the hospital will not disclose its sex or other identifying information.

The child was in good health and left with a note that briefly described when he or she was born, its ethnic origin and family history, Dr. Cundiff said. After an overnight stay, the newborn was handed over to B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Christine Ash, a ministry spokeswoman, said she could not comment specifically on the case. But she said that in such circumstances the ministry would generally publish an ad saying it had taken in an abandoned baby, allowing parents to make a claim, then look for an adoptive family if none do. During the baby’s first six months with that family, the birth parents could still come forward and take custody, if they could prove parentage with DNA tests, Ms. Ash said.

“At least the child is being abandoned in a safe manner, rather than in what could be a terrible manner,” she said of the St. Paul’s program.

Under the project, police have agreed that parents who drop babies at the St. Paul’s site would not be prosecuted. The concept was seen as an answer to sporadic horror stories of infants being discarded in public places or even killed by desperate parents.

Representatives of Covenant Health, a Catholic organization like Providence, which manages several hospitals and other health facilities in Alberta, have inquired about the Vancouver program and are planning to visit the hospital to find out more, said Dr. Cundiff. Covenant officials could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Ash said baby abandonments are rare in B.C., with an average of about one child a year ending up in the care of the province’s child-welfare authorities.

The safe-haven idea has become widespread in the United States, where most states have instituted “Baby Moses” laws that allow parents to deposit babies at hospitals and other designated locations without repercussion. Those jurisdictions argue that any infant left at a safe-haven site is a potential life saved.

Not all experts agree. In a 2003 report, the New York-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute noted that the scant, mostly anecdotal, evidence available suggested the number of dangerous abandonments does not drop after legislation is introduced.

And in the seven years since that report was published, the limited evidence indicates “these laws are even more counterproductive than we’d expected,” Adam Pertman, the institute’s executive director, said yesterday.

The problem is that mothers who kill or discard their newborns in a dangerous way are unstable and panicked, not cogently thinking people who would seek out a safe-haven drop-off, said Mr. Pertman.

Those who do use the sites are likely women who would otherwise contact an adoption agency but have now been convinced to take an easier way out, he said. With counselling at an agency, they might even have decided to keep the baby; they would at least be ensuring that adoptive parents had access to the infant’s family medical background, something not possible with legal abandonment.

“Everybody thinks they have found an answer,” said Mr. Pertman. “It feels good, it’s intuitive, we can clap our hands and say ‘We’ve solved that one and move on.’ The problem is, we haven’t solved it.”

National Post