VANCOUVER— As early as the 12th century, some churches had “foundling wheels” where mothers could place an unwanted baby in a cylinder from the outside, turn the repository to the inside, and ring a bell to alert those within of the infant’s presence.
A downtown Vancouver hospital is becoming the first in North America to install a modern-day version of the wheel, with a baby hatch where desperate mothers can drop off their infants. Under an angel sign near the hospital emergency entrance, St. Paul’s Hospital has arranged for a baby drop repository where women can leave their babies in a bassinet. The repository is a built-in portal accessible from inside the hospital and from a protected area just outside of the entrance.
Once the door to the repository is opened, there is a 30-second delay before an alarm sounds, alerting hospital staff to the baby’s presence, but giving the mother enough time to depart. Dr. Geoffrey Cundiff, the head of obstetrics and gynecology at St. Paul’s, said there are women who can’t or don’t pursue other available resources and believe they have no alternative but abandonment.
“This isn’t to encourage women to abandon their babies. If anything this is an opportunity to reach out to those women and let them know about other alternatives,” said Cundiff. “If they’re going to abandon their baby, it’s better that they do it here.” Cundiff said the hospital wanted to address the reality of abandoned babies in a safe and responsible way. Over the last 15 years, there have been seven known cases of babies being abandoned by their mothers in Vancouver.
Just as revealing are cases where babies are not abandoned.
Earlier this month, Vancouver police said they will not search a nearby landfill to find the remains of a baby believed to have been killed last month, the second of two babies born to the same mother in just over a year. In April 2009, the body of a newborn boy was found and linked back to the mother who is currently under investigation. This week, post-mortem results found a Calgary woman with depression and a borderline personality disorder died of complications from a home birth. The remains of three babies were hidden in the home where she was found dead. The bodies were stuffed in plastic bags and suitcases in the basement home.
At St. Paul’s Hospital, security officers and hospital staff will not approach any woman who drops off her baby and Vancouver police have also assured the hospital they will not try to pursue charges for abandonment.
It is unlawful under the Criminal Code to abandon a child in circumstances where the baby’s life is likely to be in danger and that wouldn’t apply if the child was left at a hospital, said Vancouver police spokeswoman Constable Anne Longley.
“With a mother going to a hospital and leaving the child in the care of someone, the child isn’t in danger,” said Longley Friday. “From the police perspective, anything that helps to save a child’s life is a good thing.” Babies left at the hospital will be treated and checked and then placed in the ministry’s care. The hospital says any medical information left with the baby will not be used to seek out the mother.
Baby hatches are common in hospitals and health centres in Asia and Europe.