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'Safe haven' law has doubters

But backers say it is saving lives

Jennifer Paluseo, 21, would have been close to graduating from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst this fall. Instead, she is serving a one-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the death of her newborn.

One evening in May 2002, Paluseo gave birth to a baby boy in a dormitory shower stall, after a pregnancy she had kept secret. Then, in a moment her loved ones still cannot understand, she wrapped the baby in a towel and tossed the bundle into a nearby trash can, where a janitor found the body the next day.

Preventing such tragic outcomes is the intent of the state's new ''safe haven" law, which took effect Friday. The measure allows parents to abandon unwanted newborns at police and fire stations and hospitals without fear of prosecution. State officials are hoping that in the moment of panic when a mother decides she does not want her baby, she will remember to take advantage of a law that could save her child's life.

''There are young troubled mothers who need an option," said state Representative Barry R. Finegold, an Andover Democrat who is one of the law's cosponsors. ''If we can save one life, the law will be worth it."

But others argue that safe haven laws do not always work, largely because women who abandon their babies often do not have the presence of mind to take advantage of them.

''Safe haven laws on the face feel good," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, and a former reporter at The Boston Globe. ''But they don't reach the people they're aimed at."

Pertman and other critics of safe haven legislation argue that parents of unwanted babies who might otherwise find an alternative to dropping off their newborns -- such as a well-planned adoption -- could be tempted to use the ''safe havens" as a quick solution.

At the heart of the debate is the inability of social researchers and psychologists to predict which parents might consider abandoning their babies. They are generally healthy young women who do not usually show signs of mental illness or drug addiction, said John Krall, a researcher with the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center, a federally funded research center in Berkeley, Calif.

When parents who have abandoned babies are studied, researchers generally find evidence of emotional immaturity and fractured emotional ties with others, Krall said. Typically, the parent is a young unmarried woman and the baby's father is often long gone. She is pregnant for the first time, and avoids questions about her swelling belly. Once labor pains begin, she gives birth in seclusion.

Often, she sees the abandonment of her baby -- perhaps in a nearby dumpster or a neighbor's doorstep -- as a quick ending to her personal crisis.

Krall shares Pertman's doubts about whether women in this situation are rational enough to take advantage of a safe haven law, shortly after the birth of her baby.

''Safe haven laws, though rooted in magnanimity, have not proven to be effective because they are not designed in such a way that will affect the decisions and actions of those most likely to discard infants," Krall wrote in a recent report, titled ''Discarded Infants and Neonaticide."

Critics of the laws, which are in effect in 45 other states, point to statistics that show mothers continue to abandon children in places such as dumpsters and church pews even after ''safe haven" legislation is in place.

Krall's report cited the example of California, where, between January 2001 and September 2002, 20 infants had been left at safe havens. But over the same period, 21 newborns were abandoned in public places other than the sites designated by the law; 17 were found dead.

But supporters of safe haven laws say the number of babies safely dropped off proves the law's success.

Michael Morrisey of Lexington, who led the local lobbying campaign for the law, said national safe haven groups had counted more than 300 babies in 32 states who had been dropped off at designated sites.

Morrisey said the key to the legislation's success is local efforts to reach parents most likely to abandon their infants. ''The point is to get the information into the minds of these women before they panic," he said.

Jennifer Paluseo's mother, Elizabeth, said she was not sure her daughter would have taken advantage of a safe haven law. To this day, Elizabeth Paluseo said, her daughter, a former honor student, barely acknowledges she was pregnant and has only faint memories of the night when she gave birth and then abandoned her son.

While Elizabeth Paluseo supports the safe haven law, she wonders if her daughter would have been able to take advantage of it.

''The mind is a funny thing," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Plymouth. ''I still don't understand what happened with her."

Jennifer Paluseo's case is one of about a dozen known baby abandonment cases in Massachusetts since 2000. In many of the cases, the parent who abandons the baby is never identified. In June, an anonymous person dropped off a baby at a Martha's Vineyard church. The child, later nicknamed Baby Vinnie, was discovered alive.

In November 2001, students found a dead baby under a tree at St. Mary's Cemetery in Dorchester. The child, later known as Baby Rebecca, was left by an unknown person.

After hearing about Baby Rebecca, Morrisey and his wife, Jean, helped bury her. They began an intensive lobbying effort to win passage of a safe haven bill in Massachusetts.

Now that the measure has gone into effect, the couple is trying to publicize it. Private groups have set up a safe haven telephone hotline (1-877-796-HOPE) and distributed radio and television public-service announcements, Michael Morrisey said. He has also established a website (www.babysafehavenyes.org) to help educate the public about the law.

The state Department of Social Services, which takes custody of any babies abandoned under safe haven laws, has also begun publicizing the details of the law. It has set up a website (www.babysafehaven.com) and radio and television announcements will begin in December, said Denise Monteiro, the agency spokeswoman.

''It's great to have a law, but if we don't reach anyone, it doesn't matter," Monteiro said.

The law allows a parent or guardian to drop off a baby under a week old. They are not required to answer any questions, though they are encouraged to give information about the baby's medical history and any other identifying data they wish to disclose.

Louisa Sorel said she supports the safe haven law, though she also wonders if it would have changed the behavior of her granddaughter. In 2001, Amie Sorel hid her pregnancy, gave birth in private, then dumped the baby into the Ware River. The body was discovered three months later by children playing near the river.

At the time of the baby's death, Amie Sorel also had a 2-year-old son. She pleaded guilty to charges of improper disposal of a body and was sentenced to serve 18 months to three years at the women's prison facility in Framingham.

''It was such a shock," Louisa Sorel said. ''Why wasn't she able to come to us? We would have helped her."

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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