On May 13, Erik Smith and I testified before the Ohio Senate Health, Human Services, and Aging Committee in opposition of SB 304 which will expand the time “desperate parents” can legally dump their baby from three days to thirty. This was the fifth hearing. I’ve been unable to attend the others, but I wanted to get a few words in before the inevitable happened. Ohio isn’t exactly adoptee friendly. (see blog below)
Oddly, I was told that no one had presented oral testimony either for or against the bill, though the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services and Ohio Right to Life (who else!) supported it. After our testimony on Wednesday, Greg Kapcar, Assistant Leg Director for the Public Children’s Services Association of Ohio gave proponent testimony. (Jim McCafferty, director of Cuyahoga County CS who loves safe havens, is on PCSAO’s board). Kapcar was especially excited about an amendment added at Wednesday’s hearing to authorize baby dumping promotion, though when asked what kind of promotion was planned he didn’t know–exactly. Prompted by my earlier testimony that there was no evidence that babies 72 hours or older were being abandoned or killed in the state (which falls right in line with the Centers for Disease Control report on infant homicide), a member of the committee asked if he had any figures on that. Well…no, he didn’t, but “it’s better to err on the side of safety.” (Mr. Kapcar also referred to adopton as the “final solution.” I wish my anti-adoption mom friends had been there!)
Sen. Joy Padgett was surprised–even shocked– that anyone opposed safe havens . I told her there is a lot of opposition, and even major proponents of safe havens, at least in California–including Don Knabe (r) (and here), Debbi Faris-Cifelli, ICAN (Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect), California Right to Life Advocates, the LA County Sheriff, the LA County DA,, and California Right to Life Committee (all here) opposed expansion and that Gov. Schwarzenegger had vetoed expansion twice. (and here). I also attached a list of adoption reform organizations that oppose.
Erik’s bombshell that the Ohio law had been ruled unconstitutional recently by Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Judge Peter M. Sikora (though no injunction was issued) flew right over their heads. (re Baby Boy Doe, 145 Ohio Misc.2d 1, 2007-Ohio-7244.)Erik’s testimony is here.
To no one’s surprise, the bill passed out of committee unanimously. The House has a similar bill, HB 485, but with a six day limit. (Note-cosponsors include a substantial member of the Health Committee). So, we shall continue the fight.
By the way, six of the twelve members of the Health, Human Services, and Aging Committee were sponsors of the bill. It’s a non-partisan thing. When current ODJFS director Helen Jones-Kelley (l) was the director of Montgomery County (Dayton) Children Services, she personally named each safe havened baby after herself. Baby Kelley 1, 2, and 3. (Dayton Daily News, paid archives, January 8, 2003, December 15, 2004).
My testimony is too long to post here. Here, though is the second section, which some readers some might find interesting., since it’s about how difficult it is for even an experienced public records researcher to track down. Baby dumps are the gold standard of adoption secrecy. I’ve added a couple sentences that were not in the original. presentation.
SAFE HAVEN SECRECY
On July 3, 2003 the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (r) issued a press release about a “survey” it had conducted in all 88 counties to determine use of the new safe haven law. The press release included basic information: the number of cases and the counties where newborns had been surrendered. but it offered no details of individual cases. Those can only be found in newspaper reports, which tend to be sparse. The Cincinnati Enquirer and the late Post have been the only papers to cover safe haven surrenders in detail. The Toledo Blade also covers them, but without much detail. So, it’s tough going for the researcher.
The ODJFS safe haven survey was not on its website, and I called to get a copy. I was initially told by ODJFS spokesperson Carmen Stewart that it would be dropped in the mail, and I’d have it in a few days. It never arrived. On August 14, 2003, I filed a records request with ODJFS asking for a copy of the survey, a copy of the questionnaire I presumed was used in the survey, and any supporting documents such as safe haven determination standards, data gathering criteria, and information on its promotion budget. I did not request identifying information on safe haven cases. I received nothing, not even an acknowledgment of my request. After my fourth or fifth request I received a letter dated June 10, 2004 from Carrie Anthony, Chief of the Placement Services Section of ODJFS regurgitating the content of the press release. She informed me that “each ‘designated Safe Haven’ was responsible for their own record keeping and reporting.” No survey or questionnaire was attached.
On August 16, 2004, I emailed Rep. Scott Oelslager, who in turn contacted ODJFS about its lack of response, cc’ing me.
Fourteen months after my initial request to ODJFS, I received a letter, dated September 14, 2004 from Dorothy Hughes, Section Chief, Office of Children and Families with about 1/5 of what I requested: A chart of county-by county cases, with a hand-written correction, plus copies of safe haven material already available on the ODJFS website. Ms Hughes wrote that the much publicized “survey” was actually an “informal survey.”
Perhaps the informality of the survey along with the earlier claim that each “designated “Safe Haven” is responsible for its own record keeping explains the discrepancy in the number of safe haven incidents reported. For instance, Katerina Papas, counsel for Summit County CSB, in the September 14, 2003 Akron Beacon Journal (paid archives) claimed that four newborns had been surrendered under safe haven specifications in that county, yet state survey press releases dated July 3, 2003 and November 15, 2004 list only one since the law went into effect. The Dayton Daily News (paid archives), doing its own survey of metropolitan-area children services offices, reported on August 1, 2002 that Stark County had one case, but ODJFS has never included it.
ODJFS’s stonewalling and confusion is emblematic of the secrecy that surrounds Ohio’s safe haven procedures. Certain legal “privacy” mandates are understandable. It is puzzling, though, that nothing but a yearly press release is available for public scrutiny—and that the public and the press is expected to accept what ODJFS says, with no proof of accuracy and no mechanism to check ODJFS “facts.”
What, in fact, constitutes a legal “safe haven—at least the way it way intended to be used?” I ask this, since it appears that safe haven is routinely abused. As we all feared, instead of an “emergency solution” for panicked parents, it’s turned into a fast-track “adoption plan” for those who find counseling, paper signing and informed adoption surrender tiresome. Of the cases I’ve been able to research though public records and other sources, a good number of Ohio safe havened newborns appear to be born in hospitals to identified women, not women in hiding. Dean Sparks, director of Lucas County Children’s Services, was quoted in the December 1, 2005 Toledo Blade (paid archives) that all three of his county’s safe havened babies were born in hospitals. “The cases I’m familiar with are cases where the mother’s gone to the hospital, she’s delivered the baby in the hospital, and she said, ‘By the way, I don’t want this baby. I want to claim my Safe Haven privilege.”
By the way?…
Only the Juvenile Court can declare a case of safe haven, and information about safe haven cases, of course, is never available. Docket numbers are not released and hearings are closed except to “interested parties;” thus, forcing parents to default their own hearings. County Juvenile Courts don’t even release the number of safe haven cases heard each year, nor do they release the number of cases that been have been actually adjudicated as safe havens and not neglect or abandonment cases.
How any of this protects “privacy” is a mystery.
How many babies have been returned to parents or other family members is another mystery. According to Columbus Dispatch (paid archives) reporter, Catherine Candisky, by the end of 2005. four out of 8 Franklin County cases ended in infant retrieval. I know of one other Franklin County case—in 2006– in which a safe havened boy was returned to his natural mother about 3 months after his birth. It appears that the baby was born to an identified teen mother at a local hospital. In Dayton, a woman went to court to try to reclaim her son, safe havened on Christmas Eve. The Juvenile Court judge put a gag order on the proceedings for among other reasons, that a mother re-gaining custody of her child might discourage other women from using the safe haven law. (Dayton Daily News, paid archives, March 28, 2002).
I am, skeptical of ODJFS statistics. Though some county prosecutors and hospitals have developed their own safe haven promotional material, the state has only offered brochures, posters, and a website. Yet a reported 54 babies in seven years have been safe havened. That is an astounding number for a state the size of Ohio and a program that isn’t advertised. Compare this to Pennsylvania, which has had five cases in six years–and a 28 day timeframe. A Florida adoption lawyer who has worked pro bono to help parents retrieve children from the safe haven system told me that nearly all safe haven mothers in that state are identified. “There are only enough walk-ins to make it look like it works,” she says.
Some safe haven cases appear to be nothing more than old-fashioned boarder baby incidents, in which babies, usually born to identified mothers, are left at the hospital after the time of discharge due to the unwillingness or inability of parents to care for them. In 1998, according to the National Abandoned Infant Resource Center at UC-Berkeley, there were 13,400 boarder babies. These babies are sometimes retrieved; some are adopted, and some go into fostercare. Their parents are seldom if ever prosecuted for abandonment and the state picks up the often hefty tab for their care. Due to educational efforts by federal and state governments, the boarder baby population has decreased substantially in recent years. The high number of safe haven surrenders in Ohio suggests that the safe haven system is being abused and that the safe havened are the new boarder babies.
Moreover there is growing anecdotal evidence nationwide that women are advised to safe haven their babies rather than go through an adoption plan or to seek services to assist them in parenting. The director of a San Antonio adoption agency, for example, told me last year that nurses in every hospital in her city advise women undecided to parent and considering adoption to subvert ethical relinquishment procedures. “Just safe haven it. It’s easier.” Even more disturbing are stories coming out of some states in which safe haven advocates claim to work with women throughout their pregnancies, with every intention of carrying to term and doing no harm to their children. In 2004 I appeared on the John Walsh Show with a woman who began to work with the New York safe haven program AMT Children of Hope when she was two months pregnant. She she was hardly “in crisis.” We can only wonder where these kitchen-table “crisis pregnancy” and adoption counselors got their training. NCFA’s old 2-day Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program? A California blogger writes proudly about how she researched options when pregnant and decided to anonymously abandoned her daughter, whom she claims to love, because she didn’t want to be treated poorly by an adoption agency and end up “bitter.” If so, this is a gross abuse of the law—which was promoted as a way to save newborns from death and their panicked and frightened mothers from jail. It is highly unlikely that a panicked girl or woman contemplating killing her newborn is going to make plans ahead of time to deliver at a hospital or worry about being made bitter by an adoption social worker. Safe havened babies were never in danger of discard or death….
And finally, please ask yourself this question:
As a matter of policy, should Ohio be making it easier for parents to give up their children anonymously?
SB 304 is open season on Ohio children and their families….