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Crying Shame 

Last week, New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan called a press conference to welcome a new statewide campaign to increase awareness of Louisiana's Safe Haven law, which the Legislature passed in 2000 to protect newborn babies from criminal abandonment. ÒSomewhere in Louisiana today, there is a young woman who is hiding her pregnancy, who is scared and who needs to know that there is an alternative to throwing that baby away,Ó Jordan says.

The Safe Haven law permits young parents to anonymously hand over newborns for adoption at designated emergency facilities such as hospitals and fire stations. The Community Correctional Center (CCC) and the family visitation center at the Templeman III jail also have been designated as safe havens, says Col. Mary Baldwin Kennedy of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.

We applaud Jordan for calling attention to the Safe Haven law, but political leaders cannot do it alone. Everyone in the New Orleans area must help spread the word about this important law. If not, Louisiana's most helpless citizens will continue to turn up dead in dumpsters, drowned in toilets and abandoned on church steps. Lack of public awareness is one reason why only four babies have been safely relinquished at Louisiana's safe havens since the Legislature passed the measure five years ago.

The good news is that Louisiana's three most recent Safe Haven babies were relinquished within the past year in metro New Orleans. ÒThe bad news is that, during the five years that the law has been in effect, 22 other infants have been abandoned in Louisiana – and 17 of those children have died,Ó Jordan says. Some survive. The DA's office recently indicted a 16-year-old girl for trying to kill her newborn son. The infant is now in state custody, recovering from collapsed lungs and skull fractures.

Too many people have never heard of the provisions of the Safe Haven law – and, unfortunately, that ignorance extends to many workers at designated emergency facilities. ÒWe did a survey back in January and found many Safe Haven facilities did not know they were designated as emergency centers,Ó says Angela Vanveckhoven, director of communications for Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana, a Baton Rouge-based nonprofit organization that is spearheading the awareness effort. Consequently, Jordan last week was placed in the unusual position of not only asking citizens to familiarize themselves with the law, but also to make sure that local doctors, police and other service providers know their roles as emergency Safe Haven centers.

The law has reasonable boundaries and requires certain criteria to be met by the infant's parent(s) as well as by Safe Haven employees. The infant must be no more than 30 days old and must not be a victim of abuse or neglect. The newborn also must be handed over – literally – to any employee of a designated safe haven site, including maintenance workers. The employee receiving the baby is prohibited by law from asking the name of the person relinquishing the infant or the name of the child's father. Churches, by the way, are not considered safe havens under the law.

As well intentioned as the act is, Louisiana's Safe Haven law was borne of tragedy. State Rep. Cedric Glover of Shreveport authored the measure in 2000 after a baby was found alive in a dumpster in his district. The legislation passed easily – but only as an Òunfunded mandate.Ó In 2003, the Legislature finally required the state Department of Social Services (DSS) to publicize the law. DSS found funding for a public awareness program with the help of Prevent Child Abuse Louisiana. Glover last year was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee, which designated $75,000 in state funding to continue publicizing the law statewide. DSS has since contracted with Prevent Child Abuse to disseminate information about the law and to make sure emergency care facilities understand their role in its implementation.

The grim statistics bear repeating, and it is a crying shame: 22 babies have been abandoned in Louisiana in the last five years; 17 are dead. Four more have been safely relinquished. We have all been looking for a way to make a difference in the crime problem, especially in New Orleans. Increasing awareness of how to protect our babies is a good place to start.

For good measure, we also would like to see all sides in the abortion debate come forward and work together on this critical issue. Louisiana has a lot of feuding factions and individual powerhouses who use a lot of time and resources taking jabs at each other. We think Louisiana's Safe Havens should give everyone a common ground for a common cause.

Twenty-two babies. Who deserves our help more?

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