For a little guy who entered the world in extraordinary fashion, the boy once affectionately dubbed “Baby Vincent” is adjusting to a life as a 6-month-old.
He likes sweet potatoes, shudders at peas and is not a fan of peaches. He likes sitting up but hasn’t quite mastered balance. He loves snuggle time and being held.
And he giggles every time his mother sings “The Bus Song,” with the wheels that go round and round and the horn that goes beep, beep, beep.
As a newborn last October, he was abandoned in a restroom at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings. A woman found the boy wrapped in a blanket and healthy. Doctors estimated he was born four to six weeks premature and may have been alone in the bathroom about 10 minutes. After spending some time in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, the baby was turned over to the state Child Protective Services. His parents had 60 days to petition to reclaim him but they did not.
It marked the first time a child had been surrendered in Billings under the state’s 11-year-old Safe Haven Newborn Protection Act.
A Yellowstone County couple in their 30s, who already have an adopted son, read about “Baby Vincent” in The Billings Gazette and petitioned successfully to adopt him.
“I know this sounds corny, but I never believed in love at first sight until I met both of my boys,” said the baby’s new mother. “There is just that connection when you hold them for the first time. That’s love at first sight.”
To protect the boy’s privacy, the family has asked not to be identified.
Kevin Frank, regional administrator for the Child and Family Services Department, said the state’s Safe Haven law worked exactly as it’s supposed to for “Baby Vincent.”
“It’s not something you ever want to see happen when there are better choices,” he said. “But it’s there to prevent a tragedy, and it did its duty exactly as it was envisioned.”
Under the Safe Haven law, passed in April 2001, parents may surrender their infant to an emergency services provider at any hospital, fire station, police department or sheriff’s office in the state within 30 days of birth. The baby is not required to be handed to an individual, though it is encouraged. Parents won’t face charges as long as there are no signs of abuse or neglect.
The law was sponsored by then-state Sen. Mike Halligan, D-Missoula, who served in the Legislature from 1980 to 2001.
He was moved to introduce the legislation after learning of a newborn girl, “Baby Grace,” who was left in a trash bin outside a Missoula bowling alley in March 1999. The infant, found after a passer-by heard crying, was found wrapped in a blanket inside a plastic bag. She survived and later was adopted.
“I was appalled,” Halligan said. “Someone had thrown a newborn baby in the trash. I couldn’t bear it.”
Surely, Halligan said, there must be a means by which parents could surrender their child without fear of prosecution. It was crafted to protect the lives of infants and help mothers traumatized by an unwanted birth surrender their children safely.
“The Legislature was unified in a way you rarely see,” Halligan said. “This was clearly an example of nonpartisanship.”
Since then, at least four children have been legally abandoned, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Due to confidentiality, authorities could not discuss the specifics of any of the cases. Officials would say, however, that in most cases, the mother relinquished her rights after giving birth in a hospital.
There was one case in which the child was reclaimed by one of the parents. All others were adopted by Montana families.
Today, all 50 states have similar laws.
Still, not everyone is a fan of the laws. The laws encourage women to abandon babies they otherwise would have kept or placed in adoption, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of “Adoption Nation.”
“There is absolutely no evidence these babies were ever going to be harmed,” Pertman said. “These laws assume every one of these mothers would have hurt their babies. Public policy should be made based on research and evidence. Instead, we’re shaping public policy on something that feels good.”
Pertman’s group has released a report critical of safe haven laws, saying they encourage irresponsible behavior and make it impossible for the infants to learn their family or medical history later in life.
“Girls call in who are perfectly lucid, who do not want to kill their babies, and they’re being encouraged to place them at a safe haven,” he said. “Those are children who could’ve been placed in adoption. Daddy or Grandma might have wanted to adopt the baby. We’re more than just implicitly encouraging abandonment, we’re explicitly encouraging it.”
No one knows for sure how many babies are legally abandoned or surrendered each year in the United States, but one of the best assessments comes from an unpublished 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report found that 108 infants were abandoned in 1998 out of 4 million births. By comparison, 65 were abandoned in 1991. But the study, which was based on newspaper articles, concluded the apparent increase could have been the result of increased media attention to the problem.
“Baby Vincent” now has a name and an older, preschool-aged brother.
“Part of the reason for our changing his name was so that it was not something he had to carry on through life,” his father said. “He’s going to know his history, but he’s going to know that he was loved.”
The couple’s first priority is to protect him and his brother, the mother said.
“He doesn’t need to grow up being that baby,” she said. “That’s a huge burden to carry and to have people watching you and scrutinizing your whole life. We want him to grow up to be healthy, happy and whole. If sheltering him now from all this is going to help him achieve that someday, we did our job.”
When he grows up and is emotionally ready to understand how he came to be in the couple’s care, they will tell him. The important thing, the mother said, is that “he knows we are a forever family.”
The couple agreed to be interviewed partly to let women and their partners know that there are options.
“His biological parents thankfully had the option for safe haven,” the father said. “It would have been very easy for him to have been put in a Dumpster or cardboard box somewhere.”