Safe Haven Act

May 18, 2014

Katheryn Deprill became known as the "Burger King Baby" this year after she posted a photo herself on Facebook holding a sign that read, "Looking for my birth mother. She abandoned me in the Burger King bathroom only hours old, Allentown, Pa. Please help me find her by sharing my post."

Deprill was abandoned in 1986 after her mother, then age 17, didn’t know what to do after keeping her pregnancy – a result of a rape – a secret from her family. Recent news stories of their meeting for the first time explained that the mom wanted a safe, dry place that someone would find her daughter without having to answer a lot of questions.

Today, her mom would have had other options with the Safe Haven Act in Pennsylvania.

A baby is a big responsibility. He or she is a life-long commitment of time, attention and money. Some moms are not ready for that, and the government and hospitals across the state recognized that in 2002.

The Safe Haven Act, Act 201 of 2002, also known as The Newborn Protection Act, took effect in February 2003. It governs laws relating to the abandonment of newborns in Pennsylvania.  “This law gives parents a safe, legal and confidential alternative to abandoning their babies,” Debbie Thomas, chief nursing officer at Penn Highlands Brookville, said.

Each of the Penn Highlands Healthcare hospitals, like every other hospital in the state, has been providing a safe drop off for newborns whose mothers’ just can’t take on the responsibility.

Babies up to age 28 days can be dropped off by the mother without fear of criminal prosecution as long as the baby has not been harmed or abused. A baby can be left with any hospital staff member or left in a bassinet specifically for this intent located in the hospital.

And “it doesn’t necessarily have to be the parent who brings the infant in,” Holly Grusky of  PH DuBois Risk Management said. “They may choose to have someone else bring in the baby, such as a friend, family member or any other responsible adult.”

Each hospital has a bassinet located in an area near the Emergency Departments or switchboard. Close enough to be monitored but it still offers the mothers privacy to stay anonymous. PH DuBois has a buzzer to ring to alert the ED staff.

“No information from the parents is needed and no questions will be asked,” Lisa Rorabaugh, director of ICU who oversees the program at PH Clearfield, said.  “However, the person leaving the baby can provide family medical information if they choose or they can take a health history form to fill out later and mail in anonymously.”

At all four locations, envelopes are available for the parents to take with papers to fill out family medical history. If a parent wishes to stay to hand over the baby in person, she is welcome to talk to someone about her family history and perhaps give a blood sample for testing without giving her name.

At the hospital, the baby will be examined by a doctor and provided with any needed medical care. The baby will be taken care of by the hospital while the county’s Children and Youth Services is contacted to take custody of the baby.

If a baby is left with staff at hospital campuses without emergency rooms, such as PH DuBois East or PH Elk Ridgway, the staff will call 911 to transport the baby to the Emergency Departments for evaluation.

“I think it benefits the community,” Christine Garner, director of Quality, Infection Control and Risk Management at PH Elk, said. “If there are mothers out there that end up in a situation where they know they cannot afford to care for a child, no questions are asked, and the baby will have a good home and good medical treatment. It’s peace of mind for the mothers…nothing is held against them for doing that. It’s a struggle for a mother to give up a child.”

There is also another way a mom can give her child anonymously. If she is in labor, moms-to-be can be admitted to the PH DuBois maternity unit anonymously as “Jane Doe.”  Once born, the baby is admitted as “Baby boy/girl Safe Haven” and Children and Youth Services are called.

At PH Elk, a mother in labor will still be admitted under her own name. PH Brookville and PH Clearfield do not deliver babies. 

How often has Safe Haven been used in the last ten years?  Since 2003, 24 babies have been relinquished under Safe Haven in Pennsylvania. PH Clearfield and PH Brookville have each cared for one baby. PH Elk and PH DuBois have not had any.