Mesa case shows teens don't always know about safe haven laws
PHOENIX -- The news that a 16-year-old Mesa girl had given birth in a bathroom and thrown the infant out a window spread quickly from Arizona to Virginia, Chicago to Canada.
The loosely knit coalition of volunteers who work to raise awareness of Baby Safe Haven laws were all thankful the infant is expected to survive.
But advocates in the nationwide network also saw yet another example of disturbed and destroyed lives that could have been avoided if the network were more successful in educating young women about laws that allow infants to be left at fire stations and hospitals in all 50 states.
The 16-year-old Mesa mother was arrested on suspicion of attempted second-degree murder and child abuse. She could face at least seven years in prison if prosecutors decide to charge her as an adult. It is not known whether the girl was aware of Arizona's Baby Safe Haven law.
But if she attended a school in the Mesa Public Schools district, or just about any school in the Valley, chances are slim that she ever received any information about the law in a classroom or nurse's office. Mesa schools, like most others, are silent on the issue.
"We don't have anything at all in place for communicating or not communicating about them," said Helen Hollands, a district spokeswoman. "There's nothing there."
And the entire situation -- a pregnant teen living seven doors down from a fire station, less than a mile from a hospital, and in a school district and state that are predominantly silent about a law that could have ensured a healthy beginning for her baby and saved the girl from a potential prison sentence -- exemplifies the struggles in raising awareness about the 12-year-old law, said Heather Burner, head of the Arizona Safe Baby Haven Foundation.
"It's just simply because they don't understand and they don't know"' Burner said. "I've done multiple teen events, and no one's ever heard of it. If you ask the question, 'Have you ever heard of a young girl throwing a baby in the garbage?' You get, 'Oh yeah, I've heard of that. It's so sad,' but no one's ever heard of the law."
It was a similar situation that got Burner, an emergency-room nurse, involved with the foundation: A mother had given birth in the hospital's waiting room and threw the infant in the garbage. The child died despite the hospital staff's immediate efforts to save the infant's life.
"That was a very disturbing, heartbreaking and tragic experience," Burner said. "It's very difficult to understand. The situation I was a part of, she could have easily walked in and said, 'I need help. I don't want my dad in here,' and we could have saved the baby."
News of the alleged attempt on the baby's life in Mesa particularly resonated with Rebecca Fisk, whose 5-year-old daughter was left at a designated safe haven outside a Catholic school near 30th and Fillmore streets in August 2008.
Fisk, who now lives in Canada, spent years trying to "plant the seeds" to make people aware of the law after her daughter was found dressed in pink and lying in a baby carrier.
"Do they not know that baby could be in someone's life?" Fisk asked. "This is an act of love; it's not an act of selfishness. You're making the choice of love, not abandonment."
Education, awareness and uniformity were never a large part of the equation when legislators around the country began considering safe-haven laws in the late 1990s.
Texas was the first state to pass such a law, and others followed suit, with Arizona joining the growing list in 2001.
In many cases, the laws were the by-product of a well-reported tragedy involving an infant, and Arizona's case was no different.
Former state Rep. Debra Brimhall Pearson introduced Arizona's Baby Safe Haven bill after her son saw a story on the news about a newborn left in a dumpster and asked her to explain why the child wasn't taken to a hospital.
"When I became aware that if a girl did try to take a baby to the hospital and leave without giving any information, they would be arrested for abandoning the baby, I also learned about the power of denial and the ability to go through a pregnancy without accepting the fact that one is pregnant," Pearson said. "This was incredibly confusing for me to accept, but when I did, I realized how the current law had to be changed."
Gauging the effect of the laws is difficult because of variables such as the amount of attention the topic gets and the patchwork nature of state laws. Arizona is one of 15 states with a 72-hour time frame to take advantage of the law, while other states allow 30 or 60 days and give a couple up to one year.
"One of my dreams toward the future is that more and more states come into harmony with each other so it's not as confusing, and there could be a national awareness program that is accurate for everybody," said Dawn Geras, president of the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation in Illinois.
Since 1999, 2,138 children have been relinquished nationwide under the Baby Safe Haven laws.
Florida accounts for nearly 10 percent of that total, with 202 children left at safe havens around the state since 2000. Illinois has had 86 children left at safe havens since 2001.
In the 12 years Arizona's law has been in effect, 24 children have been left at safe havens.
Laws were enacted nationwide, with the final states adopting Baby Safe Haven laws in 2009, but none came with funding to purchase signs, public-service announcements or educational materials.
"Without that, it's kind of hard to do too much," Geras said. "On the basis of what we've learned, we have gone back almost every year and amended the Illinois law."
Geras has since persuaded Illinois legislators to draft a statute requiring signs on buildings that serve as safe havens and requiring information about the law to be shared in schools. But even the curriculum success came with a hiccup: The state originally required that save havens be discussed in sex-education classes, until Geras realized that many school districts no longer offer a unit on sex education. The information is now shared in health classes, she said.
"If every young woman and boy grows up learning that option exists, when they're in their 20s or 30s or 40s and they get into a situation they can't handle, they will know that this safe, responsible, legal, loving option does exist," she said. "Everybody's heard the word 'abortion.' Maybe someday, everyone will know 'baby safe haven.'"
Arizona's law requires signs to be posted on the exterior of safe-haven buildings with "baby safe haven" printed in bold-faced, capital letters not less than 2 inches in height. But now that the law has been in effect for a while, Pearson said, more should be done to raise awareness, particularly in schools.
Burner said she was successful in getting some high-school nurses to allow her to post information about the law in their offices, but that is the best her group can do in Arizona without generating a backlash from educators and community members.
"We do community events because to try to get the information passed by the school districts to be introduced into a health classes and science classes has been very difficult and challenging," she said. "They're not interested in putting it into their program."
On a Friday night, Burner set up a booth outside a Glendale store whose owners had offered the opportunity after hearing Burner's husband talk about his wife's work with raising awareness. Other businesses in the area have also expressed an interest at fundraising for the Arizona Safe Baby Haven Foundation as a way to help mothers.
Those outreach efforts are important, Geras said, because the target audience is not limited to minority teen mothers, as many people envision.
Nationwide, the majority of women who relinquish their children under Baby Safe Haven laws are over age 18, said Tracey Johnson, head of the national coalition based in Virginia. In Illinois, nearly 39 percent of the women who have relinquished their children are over age 25, and nearly half are white, Geras said.
"This is something that does happen in your backyard," she said. "They're hidden pregnancies."