Almost a quarter-century later, Don Schaeffer remembers investigating the case of a baby who was placed in a gym bag and tossed in a Dumpster in central Davenport.
Schaeffer, now Davenport’s assistant police chief, recalls that the child was found alive that day in August 1989 because a man who was washing his car saw the bag being thrown in the garbage receptacle and went to check it out.
“That was very fortunate,” Schaeffer said, pointing out that the existence of “safe haven” laws in Iowa and Illinois makes such incidents far less common than they were 15 to 25 years ago.
The safe-haven laws came into focus after a Sept. 27 incident in Toulon, Ill., a small town about 65 miles southeast of the Quad-Cities. The cries of a 3-week-old baby alerted authorities to the infant’s location in a ditch along a gravel road about one mile from Toulon. After the child was found alive and unharmed, her mother, Kendra Meaker, 19, was charged in Stark County Circuit Court with obstruction of justice and endangering the life or health of a child.
Iowa and Illinois passed safe-haven legislation in 2001, although the two states have slightly different versions of the law. In Illinois, a parent can take a newborn to a hospital, fire or police station, or an emergency medical center and leave in complete privacy without fear of prosecution. In Iowa, a baby can be taken to a hospital, health clinic or nursing home where medical care can be provided if needed.
The law is helpful and necessary, Schaeffer said.
“With no questions asked at the hospital, the baby will get immediate medical attention and the chances for survival increase,” he added.
Safe havens have been a solution to the problem of abandoned babies, agreed Joan Blair-Dick, a social worker at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport. Generally, a mother brings in the baby and the child is immediately transferred to the emergency room for a medical exam. Also, the Iowa Department of Human Services is notified and the infants typically are sent to a foster home.
Such cases happen about four times a year in the Iowa Quad-Cities. The problem of abandoned babies gained particular notoriety in this area during a five-year period from 1988 to 1993 when eight infants were found abandoned, four of them dead.
“In a lot of these cases, there’s a crisis situation going on. These acts have been done as a mother is frantic and making poor choices,” Blair-Dick said.
Caring for a baby is challenging for all parents, even in the best of circumstances, she added.
Once an unharmed baby has been given to a hospital staff member, police officer or firefighter, the individual who hands it over is free to leave, explained Jason Bitner, the director of the emergency department and critical-care unit at Kewanee (Ill.) Hospital, a safe haven site 13 miles from Toulon.
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The process is completely private, Bitner said. “Individuals handing over babies do not have to give their name or answer any questions. The baby will receive a health exam, any needed medical care and can be adopted by a loving family,” he added.
Obstetrics units in the hospitals are doing more to engage with mothers who give birth at their facilities.
“We do talk about post-partum depression,” said Jamie Viren of Trinity Moline, who has been a case manager in obstetrics for eight years. “If they have had that in the past, we ask them how they are feeling and we can make referrals.”
Social workers and nurses use a screening method to identify patients who may be at risk for depression, said Linda Hoppe, the executive director of quality and risk at Mercy Medical Center in Clinton, where a newborn was found abandoned and alive during 1994 in a hallway at Samaritan Hospital South in Clinton, a predecessor of Mercy Medical.
If services are needed, the nursing staff can provide referrals, which happens regularly in Clinton, Hoppe said, adding that the area has what she described as a fairly high rate of teen pregnancy.
She also endorses the safe-haven concept.
“I would rather the babies be dropped off here than dropped off at the side of a road,” she said.