We can look to Vancouver for again leading the country in harm-reduction health practices.
Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital has installed a 21st century “foundling wheel” near their Burrard Street emergency room. They call it an “angel’s cradle”. It has been installed to accept abandoned babies from mothers (or fathers for that matter) in a way that is anonymous and safe for both mother and child. I’m not convinced that all abandoned babies are abandoned because of the actions of their mothers, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume that it’s mostly mothers who abandon their children. Although every abandoned baby has a biological father, there is never any attention directed to them in these cases, only the mother is raked over the coals.
Maybe some of you might recall the story of Baby Parker, a newborn boy found buried in a Brantford, Ontario park. It was a heartbreaking story that gripped us here in Hamilton, just down the road from Brantford. There was a lot of effort spent looking for the mother, ostensibly under the guise of caring for her health, but the possibility of criminal charges loomed large on the horizon should she be identified. And although the maximum penalties for child abandonment under the age of 10 is between 18 months and 5 years, according to the CBC, very rarely are mothers charged with child abandonment. In fact, it’s only when babies are abandoned to the elements, that is, not to a hospital, clinic, social service or family service agency, or rural RCMP detachments that charges are even considered. I bet not too many people know that. Especially pregnant women in crisis.
It’s been 7 years since Baby Parker was given a proper burial. His mother has still not been found.
Opponents of “safe haven” legislation are usually children rights advocates who claim that every child has a right to their health information, every biological parent has a right to parent (usually argued by father’s rights groups). They argue that in making use of anonymous means to abandon babies, these children will never know their full health status, particularly as it pertains to family history and that biological parents (fathers) or relatives are denied the right to care. Never mind that, the legislation can be seen as advocating that parents abrogate their parental responsibilities with no repercussions. What will it all lead too? A society of drop’em and dump’em parents, they fear.
But at least these children will be alive. Safe haven legislation and the “angel’s cradle” at St. Paul’s may save the lives of one, maybe 2 or 3 babies that might have been left in a nearby alley. And maybe those children will be unaware of their health status, but at least they’ll be cared for in a safe environment. Every hospital in Canada should have a cradle to accept abandoned babies and everyone should know about it. We can all hope these cradles won’t be used, but it’s a small piece of geography to give over to such an important cause.
The mother, or father, will have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. How do you deal with a guilt that deep? What kind of problems will emerge for the mother (or father) in the years ahead? The fear of criminal charges will always hover above her and her life will contain a big fat lie, one that will take its toll on her mental and physical health.
The Adoption Council of Canada has a number of recommendations in lieu of safe haven legislation.
- increase investment in prenatal care particularly for young, single and at-risk parents
- increase community awareness around adoption, kinship care and family support
- develop a child welfare hotline
- develop programs to help parents, teachers, counselors and others about concealed pregnancy and how to support affected women
These sound like admirable recommendations and governments and social service agencies should be moving ahead on them regardless of the safe haven legislation.
Perhaps we cannot understand what drives a mother to abandon her newborn baby, but I bet fear has a lot to do with it. I bet fear has everything to do with it. Fear of discovery, first of all, then fear of the enormous responsibility that a new life presents. Perhaps fear of retribution from a violent partner. And we all know how irrational we become in moments of fear. Add the confusion and pain of childbirth and the raging hormones coursing through a new mother’s body. And as with everything, mental health issues can complicate the matter significantly, if they aren’t the cause in the first place.
What we need to remember is that mothers, in particular, have been in this situation forever. Moses, we will recall, was placed in a basket and sent down the river. Oedipus was abandoned to the elements by his father, Lauis, who feared the Delphic prophecy. I’m not suggesting that the motives are the same for those who abandon in the 21st century; I can’t recall of an instance in modern times when every first born son was destined for death. The act of abandonment today appears as irrational, given our advances in health and the “progress” of society. But it happens more than we care to acknowledge. Maybe we should step up and give mother’s a safe place to abandon babies. Seems logical to me.
Although it looks like we are taking a step backward in dealing with this problem, maybe we had it right all along and just thought we were better than we are when we abolished safe havens in the first place. We’re not there yet, at that place where we all think rationally and can be expected to act as responsible human beings.
This is life, remember? It can get real messy.