04 June 2010

Safe Haven

Note: I wrote this piece in Dec. 2006, and updated it in Feb. 2007.

At 7:30 in the morning, on December 12, 2006, the body of a 7-pound, 6-ounce newborn baby girl, umbilical cord still attached, was found by maintenance workers, face-down in the grass outside the Eastchester Gardens project on Burke Avenue in The Bronx, New York. The baby was thrown out a fifth-floor window by her 14-year-old mother, who then went to school.

This is not the opening scene of a fictional prime-time TV crime drama. The baby, according to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, died due to, “Blunt impact injuries to her head and torso.” The mother has admitted to the crime, and been charged with murder. Unfortunately, this is but one sad story in a string of murdered, abandoned, or abused newborns.

In the month preceding that murder, in the New York/New Jersey area alone, one baby was found in a plastic bag at a recycling plant, and another’s body was found in a garbage can. In one truly hideous case, parts of a baby girl’s body were found at a garbage transfer station in Newark, New Jersey. In other cases, around the United States, a baby was micro-waved by its mother, one was sent through the X-ray machine at an airport, and another was given formula mixed with four ounces of vodka. Several other children were shaken or beaten by their parents or babysitters, resulting in brain damage or death. All this in one month.

In February 2007, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a 23-year-old man woke up early on a Saturday morning and found his daughter, not quite two years old, playing in a hallway. When she refused to go back to bed he, according to the criminal complaint, “Hit her so hard she lost consciousness.” He then wrapped her in a blanket, carried her outside in single-digit temperatures, and left her to freeze. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this particular story – if anything about the death of a child can be more or less heartbreaking – is that the police found child-sized footprints around the body, leading them to believe that she woke up from the blow her father gave her, and walked around before she froze to death.

Several years ago, a young woman on Long Island threw her newborn baby in a garbage can after giving birth in the Ladies Room during her high school prom. Not long after that, much the same thing happened at a high school in New Jersey. These girls threw away a human life rather than telling their family, friends, teachers, or any counselor about their pregnancy. Clearly this is not a problem that exists only in “poor” neighborhoods, or in the “projects.” It is happening in all our neighborhoods, and on an all-too-regular basis.

I’d write that I’m sorry if this editorial turns your stomach, puts a lump in your throat, or even brings a tear to your eye…but I’m not. We, as a country, need to wake up to what is going on. We see so much violence and death on a daily basis that we have become desensitized to it all. And we begin to miss, or, at best, barely notice, the death of a child. A 30-second report on the evening news, a quick quote from someone who’d seen the baby, and then it’s gone…on to another story, while we finish writing-out our grocery lists. But the stories I listed are not those of children who died in car accidents, or of some incurable disease, or who died in areas of the world where high infant mortality rates are a cruel reality. No, they died – were killed – right here, in America; supposedly the most advanced and civilized country in the world!

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to these stories because I have a 13-month-old niece, but I have to admit, I’m stumped. How any human being could willfully hurt a child – any child – is beyond my comprehension. As a United States Army Infantryman I was trained to protect the weak or defenseless; and as a human being, I would be dragged across a mile of broken glass before I would intentionally allow a child to be harmed.

The first step toward stemming this growing epidemic of violence against our children is education. We must educate our young people about sex. Exposing younger teens and children to sex education will make many people uncomfortable, but several recent scientific reports have shown that our children are going through puberty at earlier ages than we did, and they are having sex earlier than many of us did. They need this education at earlier ages. We must teach our children about the dangers of unprotected sex; not only about pregnancy, but about the possibility of disease as well. We must educate our children about “safe-sex” and abstinence. Hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that there is not a problem will not make it go away.

In addition, we must educate our young people about the resources available to them if they do become pregnant. There are several public and private organizations, including the State of New York, that provide free pre-natal care for mothers-to-be who can’t afford those services. Thirty states, including New York, have Baby Safe Haven Laws. An unwanted baby – usually under 7 days old, though in some states, up to a year old – can be dropped off at a police station, manned firehouse, EMS headquarters, or at a hospital emergency room; with no questions asked, no criminal prosecution, and without notifying the parents of the mother. The baby will be cared for by Child- or Social Services until it can be placed with a foster family. And there are thousands of people willing to adopt these “unwanted” babies.

We must toughen the penalty for killing a child, and we should develop and implement a National Baby Safe Haven program, standardizing all the individual and varied State-level programs. We must protect those who cannot protect themselves. We must stop, literally, throwing away human life.

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