by Pia K. Hansen
Early on Saturday, Sept. 6, someone -- presumably a brand-new mom -- left twin infant boys in a cardboard box outside a Shiloh Hills home in north Spokane. When found, one boy was dead. He had apparently suffocated underneath his brother. The surviving twin was brought to a hospital. So far, no one has claimed the surviving infant.
Now consider this: When a cat was set on fire and later had to be put down, letters to the editor flooded newspapers calling for justice, and the local media provided daily updates of the cat's health up until its final moments. Public outrage nearly registered on the Richter Scale.
In the dead infant boy's case, a few letters trickled in and a few updates followed. "I can't explain why that is," says Virginia Pfalzer, spokeswoman and cofounder of the Washington chapter of Safe Place for Newborns. "But one thing has to be made perfectly clear: The mother didn't have to leave the infants where she did. She could have taken them to the emergency room and left them there."
And no one would have asked her a single question. In Washington state, an infant less than three days old can be left by its parent with a staff member or volunteer at any fire station, or at the emergency room at any hospital. In the state of Idaho, a parent can do the same thing before the baby turns 30 days old.
"We realize that it takes a lot of courage to go into the hospital with the baby, but we encourage young women who don't know what to do with an infant to do so," says Pfalzer. "If they call us, we will help them find a hospital and tell them that the hospital has agreed to treat them kindly. There is a brief medical form they will be asked to fill out, but no one will tackle them in the hallway or try to find out who they are."
While animal cruelty cases are registered in the court system, it's next to impossible to find statistics on the numbers of abandoned babies.
"We don't have any numbers that show how many babies are found," says Pfalzer. "But we do have the absence of finding dead babies. In Alabama, they found 10 dead babies the year before the program started. The next year they found only one."
Safe Place for Newborns is a nationwide volunteer organization that works to sign up hospitals that agree to take in abandoned babies, and to educate the public about the changes in the law which make this possible. In Spokane, all hospitals are supposed to accept babies, according to state law, but only Sacred Heart participates in the Safe Place for Newborns program.
Although the law changed two years ago, there was no money allocated to educate the public.
"We have put out 22,000 brochures in the two years since the law changed," says Pfalzer. "We have some help, but it's mostly just us two retired nurses doing this."
Safe Place for Newborns' Washington office is located in the Seattle area, and Pfalzer says she and the other cofounder, Joan Dedmond, tried monitoring newspapers there to count the cases.
"There are a lot of dumpster babies that are never found, and the statistics are so poor," says Pfalzer. "We researched our main paper, and we found nine or 10 cases -- in some of which the baby lived, some of which it died." She adds that a national study found that out about one-third of all abandoned babies die.
"They typically die from exposure. Newborns need a lot of care and that's why the law says you have to leave them with a person," says Pfalzer. "You can't leave a newborn in a bathroom at the hospital or on the doorstep at the fire station." New privacy laws prevent the hospitals from sharing any information about babies left there, and local police typically don't release much information while an investigation is ongoing.
"The police tell us it takes about two months to find out how the baby died -- you know, was it an accident or was it death at birth," says Pfalzer. "If anything reaches the media at the end of investigation, it's always just a tiny little note on the back of the paper. Why are they afraid to put it in there? We just don't understand that."
She adds that it's a misconception that all abandoned babies are children of drug users or poverty-stricken parents.
"I'd say the average girl who abandons a baby is between 14 and 24 years old -- most are around 19," says Pfalzer. "Most are from average or above-average homes. For them, a pregnancy can easily be hidden in baggy clothes, and they go into denial about the baby. They can't talk to their parents, they are afraid to go to a counselor, and when the baby is born they just run from it.
"What we are trying to get out there is that they don't have to -- they can come to the hospital and be safe."
The crisis phone line number is (877) 440-2229. Or visit www.safeplacefornewborns.com
Not the First Time? -- The Spokane Police Department is still investigating the case of the twins abandoned in north Spokane on Sept. 6. So far, no one has claimed the babies or come forward with information that may lead to finding the babies' relatives or parents.
SPD spokesperson Dick Cottam says the detective on the case is following evidence from another baby abandonment in September 2001, also in the Shilo Hills area, that could prove all three babies came from the same mother. The earlier case involved an infant girl, who survived and was placed with a family by Child Protective Services. Police now say there is reason to believe the two cases of abandonment may be related. Detectives don't know for sure yet, but they are waiting for DNA analysis to come back from the lab.
Publication date: 10/02/03