Saving babies Moms don’t want means promoting havens

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MARLBOROUGH – Too often, local news outlets report tragic tales of newborn infants abandoned, sometimes left exposed to the elements and other hazards.

Tuesday, a 23-year-old man was charged in connection with leaving his two-month-old son in an infant-seat placed in the travel lane of a Maryland road on Dec. 12. During Thanksgiving week, a newborn boy was discovered in a freshly installed nativity display at a church in New York City’s Queens borough.

Others take advantage of a different – and legal – way to rid themselves of an unwanted baby, as a young woman in Yakima, Washington, did on Christmas Eve, anonymously dropping her child off at a designated government location. These arrangements have been made possible by Baby Safe Haven laws enacted in all 50 states that protect newborns from rejection and their mothers from prosecution.

As one of the most outspoken and cited advocates for these laws, Mike Morrisey has been fighting to prevent future abandonments for 15 years. Morrisey, 62, is co-founder of Baby Safe Haven New England. But he is almost as passionate about his method of using young people to reach out to the public as he is about his mission to save babies.

In Massachusetts, the haven law, enacted in 2004, provides “designated facilities in which a parent can voluntarily place a newborn up to seven days old” without fear of prosecution or that the infant will be at risk. The facilities can be in manned police or fire stations, though the preferred location is a hospital emergency room. Babies that are left get immediate treatment at an emergency room, then are put in the care of the state Department of Children & Families.

Other states vary on qualifying age of the infant and permissible locations where parents can anonymously leave a child – in an emergency room (Connecticut), a medical facility (Rhode Island), a church (New Hampshire), an adoption agency (Vermont) or simply with a responsible adult (New York).

One of the most substantial problems these laws face, however, is getting the word out to those who need it most – young women who are pregnant and scared, or those who could become so. That’s Morrisey’s mission, and he believes it can’t be accomplished using older people as the face of his organization.

“Most other state programs are run by elected state officials, or people like me help pass most of the laws,” Morrisey said. Most people who are working on saving discarded and abandoned infants range from 60 to 70 years of age or older, he added.

When a group of schoolchildren in Boston’s Dorchester section found a newborn baby dead in St. Mary’s Cemetery in 2001, Morrisey and his wife, Jean Morrisey, helped bury the body, known as “Baby Rebecca.” The experience led them to dedicate their lives to advocating for desperate women and their vulnerable newborns. At the time, 37 states had safe haven laws.

“We want to save the young woman from making mistakes and then we always have the baby,” Morrisey said.

Since then, the Morriseys have helped pass haven laws in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Alaska, Nebraska and Hawaii. The Morriseys believe they have kept abandonment numbers down locally – by as much as 90 percent – but nationwide, Morrisey said, the statistics seem as high as in the 1990s.

His organization tracks abandonments somewhat informally, through Google searches and digging through local news websites. They have found that often in these cases, there is only a 50 percent chance that a discarded infant will survive.

Morrisey calculated that nationwide, there were about 70 cases of abandoned or discarded infants last year, making it the worst year for such tragedies in the past decade, in a post on his group’s Facebook page. He cited a baby found dead inside a diaper bag on New Year’s Eve in Twin Falls, Idaho, as “the worst way possible” to end the year.

The experience in Massachusetts shows things can be better, as Morrisey told the Idaho State Journal, the state “used to have abandonment cases an average of once every 10 months” but hasn’t had one in over seven years.

However, numbers are hard to track because of confidentiality issues and the mere fact that few states keep records, according to Save Abandoned Babies Foundation president Dawn Geras, who has used similar methods of online research as the Morriseys for the past 15 years.

Her Chicago, Illinois-based nonprofit, which worked to pass her state’s haven law and partners with state agencies, estimates that more than 200 newborns were legally relinquished last year, while 53 were illegally abandoned or discarded. Likely, a total of 3,000 babies have been surrendered legally nationwide since 1999, when the first haven law was enacted.

The data for Massachusetts collected by Geras is not quite as optimistic as the Morriseys’ – she calculates that 16 babies have been saved in the Bay State while 10 were illegally abandoned since the state’s law passed in 2004. Of those 10, half survived.

“It’s not a very good percentage,” Geras said in an interview. Comparatively, Rhode Island and Maine have had one illegal abandonment since their respective laws passed, while New Hampshire and Vermont have had none.

“One not saved is too much,” Geras added. “Who wants to bury just one baby?”

In 2007, Baby Safe Haven New England garnered the help of teenager and singer-songwriter Renee Marcou, now 27, to become the public face of the organization. Soon after, it picked up other teenagers to help out as well.

Marcou, a Wilmington resident, said that the past seven years of advocacy have been personal, since most of the women giving up their babies are between 18 and 35.

“I’m right smack in the middle,” Marcou said in an interview. “It is a peer-to-peer conversation. It honestly comes down to being able help people and save lives.”

Another alternative to dropping an unwanted child off is to call a hotline, which can often match a new mother with an adoption agency, Marcou said.

Morrisey has a handful of ideas ready to launch in 2016 – from house concerts to social media initiatives that utilize Periscope, YouNow and other smartphone apps.

“We are sort of the combatant type of people,” he said. “This is a young person’s issue … only young people can talk about it to each other.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.