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Move to protect newborns remains a matter of debate

DOUGLAS F. Gansler, the Montgomery County state's attorney, just wanted to do a good thing. Anybody out there against doing a good thing?

Of course you're not. In Gansler's case, he just wanted to save the lives of newborn babies. It started with a case he prosecuted three years ago.

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Tanisha Montague was an 18-year-old Jamaican who had entered the country illegally. She gave birth to a baby girl in her Germantown townhouse an hour before midnight Jan. 25, 2000. While a snowstorm raged outside, Montague lay in bed with her baby.

Gansler speculated that she pondered the consequences of going to the hospital, where her illegal immigrant status would surely be revealed.

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Montague waited about seven hours. About 6 the next morning, she wrapped the baby in a white cloth and stuffed her in a Kmart bag that contained a dirty pair of women's underwear, a chicken bone and other trash. She ditched the bag in a refuse bin, where the baby's cries alerted a woman who was passing by.

Gansler prosecuted Montague, who was convicted of attempted first-degree murder. She was sentenced to 12 years.

"It was tragic because Tanisha Montague was a frightened girl," the state's attorney said. "To me, she was a very sympathetic defendant."

His experience with Montague led Gansler to talk to state legislators about passing a law that would allow mothers to take babies to hospitals, police or fire stations instead of dumping them to die. The legislation failed in 2001 but passed last year and went into effect in October.

"It remains unclear," Gansler wrote in an overview memorandum when he proposed the bill, "who would oppose such a law." Well, let's just say it's getting a bit clearer. There are those who question both the wisdom and the effectiveness of the law.

Like Gansler, Adam Pertman wants to do the good thing of saving babies' lives. But Pertman doesn't believe such laws are the way to do it.

Pertman is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, based in New York City, and the author of the book Adoption Nation. The institute completed a 16-page study in March entitled "Unintended Consequences: 'Safe Haven' Laws are Causing Problems, Not Solving Them." The study took a year to complete.

"I know the people who support these laws are generally very well-intentioned," Pertman said. "But these laws don't do anything - zero - for the mothers of those abandoned babies." Pertman said there is no research to determine if babies abandoned in safe havens after the laws were passed would have been unsafely abandoned without them.

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Gansler insisted that his first priority is to save the baby's life.

"My view is we're better off with these safe haven laws," he said. "The bottom line on safe haven laws is prosecutors agreeing not to prosecute."

Under Maryland's law, the child's parents have 72 hours to take a baby to a hospital, church, police or fire station to avoid charges of child abandonment. The hope is that babies - like Tanisha Montague's daughter - will be left in safe and sanitary environments instead of refuse bins.

Pertman, who says more research on the impact of safe haven laws is needed, remains skeptical.

"At best, we're declaring victory without seeing if these laws need improvement," Pertman said. "At worst, we're sending the message that it's OK to abandon your child."

Gansler disagreed.

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"I don't think it encourages people to abandon babies," he said. "Most people want to keep their babies. This encourages people to [abandon babies] in such a way that the baby is alive."

Nick D'Alesandro, the community liaison for Baltimore County's Department of Social Services, gave some data that seem to support Pertman's contention that further study is needed.

"We haven't had enough situations to really test it," D'Alesandro said. "Our experience in Baltimore County is we've had maybe three or four baby abandonment incidents [in many years]."

Pertman's study shows that in 1997 nationwide, 105 babies were unsafely abandoned in public places. Most of the mothers were in the age range of 16 to 24. It would be quite a leap of faith, in a society that has gone in a generation from embracing sexual restraint to sexual excess, to believe that those who are by definition irresponsible would suddenly commit a random act of responsibility because the law allowed it. Are those who would abandon a child likely to be informed enough to even know of Maryland's law?

"We do assume people know about the law," Gansler said. "As time goes on, more and more people are going to find out about this law."

D'Alesandro said, "It would take a pretty extensive ad campaign to get the message out."

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No doubt. On Independence Day, a woman abandoned a newborn girl at a construction site in Damascus in Montgomery County.

She must not have gotten the memo about Maryland's law.


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