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Pa. hospitals 'safe havens' for newborns

February 21, 2005|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

The birth of a child is often a joyful event for new parents, but for some - the young, the unmarried and those suffering from postpartum depression - parenthood might be overwhelming.

In some instances, an infant's welfare and life might be at stake, which is why Chambersburg and Waynesboro hospitals - and all other hospitals in Pennsylvania - are required to become part of the Safe Haven program, allowing parents to turn over a child to hospital staff within the first four weeks of its birth.

"It's a mechanism for parents who have decided they no longer want to take care of the child to safely and anonymously provide a safe environment for the child," said Dr. Michael Colli, chairman of Chambersburg Hospital's Pediatrics Department.

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"A parent can bring the child to the hospital and all hospital personnel will be trained in the program to accept the baby," Colli said.

A parent may take the infant to the emergency room at either hospital, although all staff members are being trained to accept the baby "with no strings attached," he said.

The protocol for Safe Haven does instruct staff to "try and ask some very basic information from the parent," Colli said.

That includes the child's date of birth, if they are on formula and if the child had any important medical issues, he said.

"The infant will be examined by an emergency department physician and a consulting pediatrician," said Jill Harshman, nurse manager of the Emergency Department at Chambersburg Hospital. The baby then would be admitted to the hospital, she said.

The infant would be tested for hepatitis-B and sexually transmitted diseases, Colli said.

Once an infant is taken in and examined, Franklin County Children & Youth Services will be notified and take custody of the infant, Harshman said. Chambersburg or Waynesboro police also would be notified, she said.

"There is no legal liability to parents, unless there has been abuse of the infant," Harshman said. That would be determined by a doctor, she said.

Although people who deliver infants to the hospital are not required to identify themselves or give any other information, they will be offered counseling through the hospitals' Crisis Intervention Services, Harshman said.

"If you are willing to give up your child, the psychological welfare of the parent has to be a concern," Colli said.

Though rare, there have been instances in Franklin County where Safe Haven could have saved the life of an infant. Harshman recalled an incident several years ago in which a dead infant was found in a trash container behind a Chambersburg carwash.

The teenage mother later was identified and prosecuted. Harshman said the girl put the baby there "because she didn't want to tell anyone she was pregnant" and had hidden her condition until the child was born.

The mother that gives up a child may, at some point, wish to regain custody. Harshman said that will not be up to the hospital. A court will have to make that determination, she said.

"There have been a couple of hospitals that have actually had to use it," Colli said of the Safe Haven program. The experiences from those incidents were incorporated into the policy developed for Waynesboro and Chambersburg hospitals, he said.

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