Just inside the entrance to the emergency department at Central Montgomery Medical Center (CMMC) in Lansdale, Pa., is an empty crib. It might seem out of place, but it serves a vital function. At the head of the crib, where a baby’s name card is typically placed, a card reads “Safe Haven.”A sign on a wall in the ED explains Pennsylvania’s Newborn Protection Act, passed in 2002.
A pink-and-blue sign on a nearby wall explains what Safe Haven means. In 2002, Pennsylvania passed the Newborn Protection Act, which allows a parent to leave an infant with a healthcare provider at any hospital in the state.
All 50 states have passed some kind of “Safe Haven” law to protect newborns that are unwanted by their parents. In Delaware, a baby may be surrendered directly to an employee or volunteer in the ED of a hospital. New Jersey’s law allows parents to deliver a baby to any state, county, municipal police station, or an ED of a licensed hospital.
This problem is not new nor is it confined to the United States. According to an article in a 2003 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “the phenomenon of mothers needing to surrender newborns anonymously became such a problem in Europe in the Middle Ages that many churches contained slots where the mother could slip the baby in and leave unseen, perhaps after ringing a bell.” According to the article, the concept of “baby drops” had been reinstituted in California, as well as in countries such as Germany and South Africa.
In 2007, a dedicated phone line set up in Pennsylvania for the Safe Haven program received 265 calls, says Michele Saul, information referral coordinator for contact help lines. Stacy Witalec, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said that as of April , 12 babies had been left at hospitals in Pennsylvania since the program began.
Reaching out to community
In November 2007, a newborn boy was left outside of a residence in a Montgomery County community. The temperature was just above freezing, but a passer-by discovered the baby before he became hypothermic.
“[A situation like that is] just what we’re trying to avoid,” says Mary Shanahan, RN, BSN, CES, director of CMMC’s Family Birth Center.
As an acute-care community hospital, CMMC makes a special effort to find ways to help residents, says Denise Pitts, director of marketing. To implement the Safe Haven policy, CMMC took a newborn crib from the hospital’s nursery and placed it in the ED entrance, in a location visible to staff members. A copy of the sign that hangs near the crib was placed in the waiting room of the hospital’s OB/GYN practice to inform pregnant women of the program.
Nurses take temporary custody
To date, no babies have been left at CMMC. But the staff knows what to do if a baby is left at the ED. The charge nurse would be notified, and ED nurses would take temporary custody until the proper authorities were alerted.
While the concept of parents abandoning newborns might be distressing, the Safe Haven program is designed to be nonjudgmental and nonpunitive. By making information available to expectant mothers, the state hopes to prevent tragic situations for unwanted infants.
“Women can make choices they need that are best for themselves and for their babies,” Shanahan says.