Abandoned baby law, 10 years later

Recent milestone ends with downstate case

September 29, 2011

Kristen McQueary

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From a high rise overlooking Chicago’s Rush Street, Dawn Geras begins her mornings the same way. She scans her e-mail for news stories about dead babies.

Ten years after she helped draft and pass a law giving distraught mothers the option of safely relinquishing their newborns, Geras grows increasingly frustrated by stories of baby deaths that could have been avoided.

She tosses a stack of newspaper printouts on the coffee table, one of them from Winona, Minn., where police were investigating the death of a newborn baby girl found in a bag floating along the Mississippi River. On Wednesday, she learned of a newborn found in a Bloomington homeless shelter toilet, still alive.

“I mean, this is what I start my mornings with,” Geras says.

Ten years after Illinois’ Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act became law, 69 babies have been taken to police stations, fire houses and hospitals, no questions asked. Another 63 have been abandoned illegally and left at churches, along roadsides — even in garbage cans. Of those, 30 died before someone noticed them. 

The latest case of an illegal abandonment resulted in the arrest of 37-year-old Tonya McKee, a resident of a Bloomington homeless shelter who allegedly gave birth in the shelter bathroom early Sunday. Police found the baby in a toilet. McKee faces charges of attempted murder, according to Bloomington Police Department Public Affairs officer David White.

Stories like that motivated Geras to do something 11 years ago. During cocktails with fellow volunteers for a children’s charity, Geras passed around copies of a newspaper story about teen-aged mothers in Alabama who were leaving their babies in hospital emergency rooms. Officials there were trying to make it legal for moms to hand over their infants safely.

Geras decided Illinois needed a “safe haven” law, too. 

“I’ll bet we could figure out something we could do to make a difference,” she told her friends.

They wrote the bill at her dining room table and spent months lobbying for it. At first, politicians were uncomfortable with the idea. Law enforcement officials worried it would encourage moms to abandon their babies anywhere, and then avoid punishment for a serious crime.

Geras understood that. But she also says she didn’t have time for a philosophical debate. So she told lawmakers this:

“If we don’t pass this law now, I can promise you, we’re going to be on your doorstep with that baby’s coffin and hold you accountable,” she says.

The headlines helped her lobbying efforts. A North Carolina couple left a dead newborn in a grocery store bathroom.  A Minnesota farmer found a baby, still alive, strapped in a car seat along the side of the road. It was happening everywhere.

“The stereotype of this being an urban phenomenon just affecting teen-aged mothers is untrue. What is common to many of these cases is a degree of isolation. These are, not all, but often hidden pregnancies,” says Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

One of those mothers found her way to a suburban police station two years ago. She had given birth at home three hours earlier. She handed over her newborn daughter and waited while paramedics came to check the baby. She declined medical attention for herself.

And then, she left.

That baby was No. 49 relinquished under the act. She is now 2 years old with strawberry blonde hair and dimples. Her name is Molly. Her parents are Kevin, an accountant, and Tracy, a first-grade teacher. The Chicago News Cooperative agreed to publish only their first names to protect their privacy.

Kevin was treated for leukemia about 10 years ago. He and Tracy knew they would not be able to have a baby on their own.  So they started the adoption process shortly after they married and waited for a birth mother to choose them. In the meantime, Tracy called hundreds of Illinois high schools and spoke to school nurses. If there was a teen-aged mother working on an adoption plan, Kevin and Tracy wanted to be considered.  

One day, they got a phone call about a 16-year-old girl from Moline who was pregnant with a baby boy. They met her. She picked them. 

Kevin and Tracy drove to the hospital for the baby’s birth. They kept him overnight in their room, gave him his first bath and marveled at his tiny features. But the next day, a hospital social worker stepped into their room with heartbreaking news. The birth mom changed her mind.

“They very politely escort you out of the hospital,” Tracy says.

They were devastated. But eight months later while meeting with a client, Kevin got another phone call from their adoption agency. Were they interested in meeting baby No. 49? Kevin pumped his fists in the air excitedly and said: “Yes, please!” 

Kevin and Tracy don’t know much about Molly’s birth mother, except that “she must have loved Molly because to go through this loving sacrifice, obviously she did,”  Kevin says. “And she must be darn cute because Molly is.”

The law is designed to make the process anonymous for the parents and safe for the babies. As long as the infant is unharmed and handed directly to staff members, the parents are not prosecuted.

Illinois’ law is one of the strongest in the country with continual updating. Geras follows trends nationally to ensure any gaps in the system get fixed. This year, legislators added college campus police stations as safe havens. They worried the law was too vague, and they wanted to publicize the law to a targeted, college audience.  

Babies handed over must be less than 30 days old. Parental rights are terminated 60 days later. And families who have already been screened by the state get a chance to adopt them.

Four years ago, that family was Lori Nicholson and Lesley Millar. They live in a little white house with a shady back yard and a flower garden. As a same-sex couple, Nicholson and Millar looked for an adoption agency that would work with them.  A woman with three children, pregnant with her fourth, who was working with their agency chose Nicholson and Millar after meeting them. They were in the room for the birth, cut the umbilical cord and then left the hospital to give the birth mother time with her family.

They weren’t allowed back. The mother changed her mind, and Nicholson and Millar drove home to an empty baby nursery and stacks of diapers.

But then, just a few weeks later, they got a phone call about a baby turned in at a Chicago area hospital under the safe haven law. Nicholson was standing at her office window. A praying mantis outside stared back at her. She snapped a picture with her cell phone and looked it up later. A praying mantis is a sign of good luck.

They drove to the hospital and waited in the lobby.  

“The hospital social worker came down and said, ‘Are you waiting on a baby?’ And we said, yes. And she said, ‘You got a keeper,” Nicholson says.

Now 4 years old, Aidan Jane has curly dark pigtails and chocolate brown eyes. She and the other babies successfully adopted after relinquishment are the reasons Geras started a foundation to raise money for public education. Recently, the foundation paid for informational posters to hang inside Chicago bus shelters.

She says she is haunted by stories of babies whose lives could have been saved, including the Bloomington infant.

 “I save babies,” she says. “Saving babies is my job.”