When Tera Naset heard about a newborn baby abandoned this month in a Chicago alley – named Patrick Casey Doe after the first responders who helped save his life – it hit her hard.
If things had gone differently, that could’ve been her son, Frankie.
Almost exactly one year before police say baby Doe was left in an alley by his teenage parents, a woman walked into a Chicago hospital and handed an employee Frankie, wrapped in a blanket, explaining she had just given birth that morning, Naset said. She then declined medical care and left.
The woman, who remains anonymous, could do so legally because of the state’s Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act, commonly referred to as the Safe Haven Law. Her decision that day set into motion a path that led Frankie, within days, to the Naset family, who then formally adopted him.
Baby Doe, who was eventually retrieved from the alley by his grandmother and then taken to a fire station, had to be resuscitated and was without oxygen for an extended period of time. He was hospitalized and now is in the foster care system. His young parents, whom the Tribune is not naming because they are juveniles, face attempted murder charges, and his grandmother Karla Antimo is charged with felony disorderly conduct after police say she lied about how she found the baby.
Safe Haven Law advocates point out the contrast between babies turned over at Safe Haven sites, which in Illinois include any hospital, fire station, police station or emergency medical services provider, and those left in alleys and garbage cans — cast away in what most likely is a desperate, troubled situation. Experts say those who abandon a baby most likely feel they have no choice and are not thinking clearly. But Safe Haven advocates hope continued outreach and education about the law will ensure it’s common knowledge, so those who feel they have no choice make a safer one.
Many abandoned babies don’t survive, said Dawn Geras, president of the Chicago-based Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, the group that lobbied for the law, enacted in 2001. And those who do are placed in the oft-troubled foster care system. Safe Haven babies, however, find their “forever home,” she said.
Since the publicity of baby Doe in the past week, Geras said another baby was “saved under the law,” bringing the total to 132 babies relinquished in the state since the law went into effect. That baby is now on the path to adoption, she said.
Geras and several of the families who have adopted Safe Haven babies say they’re devastated when they hear that a baby has been abandoned. In the almost 19 years since the law was created, 83 additional babies were abandoned, not using the law, Geras said. More than half of those babies did not survive.
“Each time, it breaks my heart,” she said. “You don’t get used to a baby being abandoned. Each one feels worse than the last one, knowing the law is there and knowing people should know about the law but don’t.”
Through her foundation, Geras spreads the word about the law, which the state mandates be taught in middle and high school health classes. She also brings together the families who have adopted Safe Haven babies. They gather each summer for a picnic, the kids calling each other “Safe Haven cousins,” Geras said.
When a parent turns over a baby – within 30 days of birth – to a Safe Haven site, the baby is hospitalized, and employees there notify the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, said DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch. DCFS then calls adoption agencies throughout the state, on a rotating basis, who soon take custody of the baby and contact a family, asking if they’d like to adopt the child, he said. Unlike abandoned babies, these children do not go into DCFS custody.
While the birth parents have 60 days to reverse their decision and could petition the court to gain the baby back, Strokosch said that’s rare in Safe Haven cases, and it’s a “smooth” road to adoption.
Downers Grove Police Chief Shanon Gillette and his wife, Debi, adopted their youngest daughter, Ella, now 11, after she was dropped off at a Chicago hospital. Debi Gillette said that, like many Safe Haven babies, Ella knows the circumstances surrounding her adoption.
“We’ve told her as much info as we have, truly since the beginning,” she said. “She had a birth mom who loved her so much that she made a choice. Our message to her is not that she’s abandoned. It was just a very loving use of a very special law where we take care of babies when their birth mothers don’t know what else to do.”
Mark Reinecke, chief of psychology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said that although it’s impossible to know what’s going through the minds of any parents who abandon their babies, in times of extreme stress, people act in irrational ways. Even more so for those in their teenage years with still developing, immature brains.
“When you experience a high level of anxiety, it narrows your focus on the problem directly in front of you,” Reinecke said. “You want it to go away immediately.”
Problems are magnified, and even if social supports are there, they do little good if the person doesn’t realize help exists, he said. “You can’t help yourself if you don’t know help is available.”
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