When a newborn infant was found abandoned in woods in south Forsyth on Thursday, June 6, it sparked conversations about Georgia’s safe haven law that provides parameters for a mother to drop off her baby without fear of criminal consequences.
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Sarah Koeppen, the founder of The Hope Box, a nonprofit that focuses on issues surrounding child abandonment, said the mother probably didn’t even know what options she had.
“She probably didn’t even know the safe haven law existed,” Koeppen said. “We need to get the information out.”
Koeppen and her Cobb County-based organization were instrumental in getting Georgia’s safe haven law updated in 2017.
In 2002, Georgia followed several states in passing a safe haven law. The “Safe Place for Newborns Act” gave mothers seven days after birth to leave their newborn baby at any hospital in Georgia. The newborn had to be left with hospital staff, and the mother had to leave their name and address.
By 2017, Georgia’s safe haven law was one of the most limited in the country, Koeppen said, so her organization worked with state lawmakers to update it. On May 8, 2017, then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed HB 391. Mothers now have 30 days after giving birth to leave their newborn baby at a safe haven location, which was expanded from just hospitals to also include fire stations and police stations. Mothers can now also decline to provide personal information.
According to Jason Shivers, a division chief with the Forsyth County Fire Department, local fire stations are equipped to handle the basic needs of an infant. If a fire station did receive a newborn, firefighters would care for the immediate needs of the child and notify the proper authorities.
Fire stations are busy places, though, and often empty out to respond to emergencies. Shivers said mothers should try to contact fire station staff before leaving their newborn, put the baby in an obvious location or provide some obvious notice about the baby’s location.
“We absolutely welcome being a part of that solution,” Shivers said.
Northside Hospital Forsyth used passage of Georgia’s amended safe haven law to provide more education to its staff, according to Melissa Sugg, manager of the hospital’s Women’s Center. The hospital also posted additional signage in the entrances to its emergency department and women’s center.
If a newborn is presented to the hospital, staff is instructed to take the baby to be assessed and ask for the mother’s information, which she can decline to do. Northside staff must then contact the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services, Sugg said.
It’s a grave situation, Sugg said, and one that’s often misunderstood. Sugg said she followed reaction on social media after the newborn was discovered off Daves Creek Road on Thursday night. Some of the reaction included harsh judgment toward the mother.
That’s not helpful, Sugg said. In fact, it could contribute to a mother’s hesitancy to come to a safe haven location for fear of being considered a bad mother.
“It could be the most loving thing she could do,” Sugg said.
When Koeppen started The Hope Box in 2014, she found there were a variety of reasons that mothers abandoned their infants. Most involved the mother being in some form of crisis – domestic violence, drugs, incest, sex trafficking.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we’ve talked to a lot of girls and they’re afraid to talk or afraid of who might find out,” Koeppen said.
Forsyth County authorities are still trying to find the mother who left her newborn.
When authorities found the child, a girl, they took her to Northside, where she was found to be in stable condition. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post on Monday that she was in good health.
Northside staff named her “India.”
She will remain in DFACS custody for the time being.
“It’s a tragic thing that happened,” Sugg said, “but it gives us an opportunity to get the word out [about safe haven laws.]”