Safe haven laws, hidden pregnancies, and the tragedy of Ashley Truitt

My office in the epidemiology department is located within the hospital. Therefore, every day when I walk into work, I pass by a sign like the one on the left. Like most states, Iowa has a safe haven law–a law that allows parents to leave a newborn infant at a designated site, no questions asked, without any threat of prosecution. These sorts of laws were developed in response to cases where babies had been left on doorsteps, or thrown in trash dumpsters, etc. Safe Haven laws, in theory, should prevent those kinds of abuses–the parents abdicate responsibility for the infant, who can then be adopted by a caring family. In theory, everyone should win.

In practice, however, it’s sometimes a different story. Some argue that these laws haven’t helped to reduce the number of babies that are “dumpstered,” and that babies in some states (depending on the particular laws) are simply placed in limbo, unadoptable because of lack of information on both birth parents. In other cases, the very people who may be most at risk are the ones unaware of such laws. For example, at the Iowa site I linked above, they have information for hospitals, parents, etc., but tragically, under “Community Education Information,” it says, “materials are still being developed.” A recent story notes that in Iowa, there’s just no money to publicize these safe havens, and that since 2001, 8 babies have been dropped off, while 4 have died after being abandoned unsafely. Earlier this week, this hit me where I live, as a teenager from my little Iowa town is accused of hiding her pregnancy and killing her newborn infant while on vacation in Florida. More below…

Truitt told police she hid her pregnancy from her parents and boyfriend. They were all staying at the Wyndham Resort on Saturday when authorities found a bloody knife in the hallway and the newborn’s body in a trash bin, sheriff’s officials said.

Truitt said she gave birth in the bathroom, using a kitchen knife to cut the umbilical cord. She then put the baby in a plastic bag with some bath towels and threw it down the trash chute, authorities said.

An autopsy performed Sunday found the newborn died from blunt trauma to the head, likely from being dropped in the trash chute.

Since this is a small town, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about what went wrong. Sex education has been an obvious topic. Though Iowa itself went “red” in the last election (barely), we have a Democratic governor, and our little swath of eastern Iowa between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids is fairly progressive (as college towns are wont to be). The school system here also is excellent–and a main reason for my choice to live in this town. Some comments on these stories (mostly from people outside of Iowa) have assumed we’re all backward hicks, and that the girl probably received no sex education. My kids are ages 7 and 5, obviously a bit too young for any kind of comprehensive sex ed, but even then they’ve already discussed a bit of “hot button” topics such as evolution, and the health curriculum shows that discussions of “human sexuality” begin in fifth grade (if not earlier).

One site calls the entire community “negligent” “in creating a healthy community of openness, trust and confidence”. Others point to Ashley’s online pages, where she talks about sneaking out and going to parties and raves, and asking where the parents are.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article on safe haven laws, and why they’re not always effective. They note that little is known about mothers who might be at risk of killing their babies, rather than dropping them off–and therefore, it’s not certain who to target for education, or how:

New York State Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffman, who sponsored her state’s “Abandoned Infant Protection Act,” says that, because of the elusiveness of these mothers, her law and comparable ones in other states are based on the assumption that mothers who abandon their babies in public – and thus might be persuaded to leave them in safer places – fit a similar profile to those who commit neonaticide.

More is known about these mothers – at least those who get caught. They tend to be girls of about 17, living with their parents, says neonaticide expert Michelle Oberman, professor of law at DePaul University and coauthor of the book “Mothers Who Kill Their Children.” In deep denial about their pregnancies, and often concealing them, they frequently do not seek prenatal care and tend to deliver their babies alone – often at home.

From what I’ve read, the girl here didn’t seem to be in denial about her pregnancy–a friend saw her looking at baby clothes one day, for example. But other than that, her situation seems rather typical. One mother who abandoned her baby (only to get it back later) gave her story:

“I gave birth to my daughter in my campus dorm room all alone,” Ms. Davis, one of the few young mothers who’s spoken to the press about abandoning her baby, told National Public Radio last week. Panicking, the straight-A student put her daughter in a dumpster next to her dorm, then called campus security to report a noise outside her window, hoping they would find the baby. They did, and Davis eventually got custody of her daughter. “[But] when I was pregnant and when I gave birth, I wasn’t really thinking rationally enough to say, ‘OK, well, after I give birth I’m going to take my daughter to a hospital, or I’m going to take her to a fire station,” she told NPR.

The article also notes that, after being “paralyzed” for 9 months over the pregnancy, it’s rather inconceivable to believe that the mother is just going to pull herself together post-partum and take the baby to a hospital or fire station. However, one can also find it equally difficult to believe that, over 9 months of pregnancy, it never occurs to the mother what they’re going to do once the baby actually is born, or that their denial can be that strong that they really believe they’re not pregnant.

I don’t know what the answers are here. I think this is tragic all around, for the girl, for her family, and of course for the baby, whom authorities confirmed was born at or near full term. I just don’t know where the weakest link was; if the family should have known (the parents admitted they suspected pregnancy), if someone reached out to the girl and was turned down, if someone could have done more, approached her about adoption, or safe haven laws, helped her in some way, whatever. I just know there’s a dead infant that many people in Iowa would have been ecstatic to have in their family, and an 18-year-old who just threw away her future.

11 Replies to “Safe haven laws, hidden pregnancies, and the tragedy of Ashley Truitt”

  1. Tara:
    A lot can be done with little or no money. In New England we’re beginning a new promotional campaign using the DJs across the region.
    Our Baby Safe Haven New England spokesperson, an up and coming young singer, goes to the station and on the sir has the DJ sign a contract to mention the Baby Safe Haven hotline and web site at least once a week. In return they get exclusive news ahead of the rest of the media, such as celebrity endorsements and safe surrenders.
    You can see the pilot video online at:
    We’ll also be taping many of the DJ interviews for our MySpace and YouTube postings.
    The New England TV stations, newspapers and magazines are also interested in coverage of these events.
    So you see it’s not just TV commercials and flyers that count in getting the word out, it’s getting the word in every area when young people can see and hear about Baby Safe Havens that counts.
    By the way here’s the stats on our Massachusetts law.
    It took our legislature 4 1/2 years to pass our Baby Safe Haven law, in that time 13 babies were abandoned, 6 died, 4 came very close to death due to very dangerous abandonments, 3 were surrendered in ways similar to the surrounding states safe haven laws.
    Since our law passed we’ve had 6 newborns safely surrendered in 30 months, all have medical histories given by the Moms at or just after the surrendering. 4 Moms came back to sign full adoption contracts.
    We’ve had a 100% turnaround here in Massachusetts!
    We’d like to help in Iowa, and any other state.

    You’ll like the videos on those sites.

  2. Here in California the slogan is “Surrender Your Baby”, while they know full well that to poor girls ‘surrender’ means to let the police go at you — the full treatment — beating, bludgeoning, pepper spray, handcuffs, complete humiliation, and jail, followed by all that follows that. The ‘surrender points’ are all areas well guarded by government minions who any poor person will expect to have a direct line to the cops. In essence, the slogan is read as ‘invite the cops to punish you, and then have the baby taken from you’.

    The idea of safe havens is good, but the way they get implemented can make them evil.

  3. When I saw the safe haven logo at the top of this post, for a moment the ‘v’ looked like a symbol for a trash can, so I had the disorienting feeling that I was looking at an ad for convenient baby disposal.

  4. Looking at this case from the UK I cannot help but feel somewhat disturbed by the way this girl is being treated. In the UK she would be facing a charge of infanticide, not murder. Infanticided occurs when the child is under 12 months and the mental state of the mother is such that was not capable of making a rational decision at the time. If convicted a suspended prison sentence is the usual punishment along with a requirement for some form of counselling. The thinking is that sending someone to prison for such a crime would not act as a deterrent and a repition by the women is unlikely.

  5. I am working on a blog on infanticide, and how it is an evolved physiological mechanism for a mother under “stress”, to shed metabolic load to survive, and perhaps reproduce another time.

    Matt’s point about infanticide by a mother being “different” than regular homicide is extremely well taken. It is different. It is postpartum psychosis.
    Virtually all mothers have extremely strong love for their children, and many would fight to the death to protect them. What kind of psychosis does it take to overcome that kind of love? An extremely powerful one.

    Who is it that causes these things to happen? Women being under tremendous stress. Women with no support system, no one to turn to, no “safety net”. The kind of stress that leads to a “Sophie’s Choice”. Not necessarily meeting the legal definition of “insanity”, but the least bad of a number of bad alternatives.

  6. Can ppd be premeditated? Not all moms- even normal ones- feel an “extremely strong love” for their prenatal baby.

  7. I don’t think ppd or pps can be premeditated. There is a continuum. I think that if you put a woman who has just had a baby under enough “stress”, you will induce infanticide. It is a “normal” response to extreme stress.

    I consider it exactly like anaphylaxis if injected with enough lipopolysaccharide. Anaphylaxis is a “normal” response to a sufficient immune system stimulation of a certain type. Infanticide is a “normal” response too.

    I think that mothers that do not have a very strong love for their children do so only because they are under a lot of “stress”. A lot of stimulent drugs of abuse, cocaine, amphetamine, PCP for example mimic a lot of the symptoms of “stress”, I think by invoking the same pathways. The non-attachment of such mothers to their children is part of that (I think).

  8. The kind of stress that leads to a “Sophie’s Choice”.

    I had this explained to me by my father as: Sophie had to choose which of her children would go to the gas chamber; if she refused to choose, the Nazis would take both.

    If I’m right, “Sophie’s Choice” isn’t relevant to this discussion.

  9. There ARE people who can be, and are, in complete denial over a pregnancy for the entire duration, to the point that they may never consciously “know” that they are pregnant, even when all the signs are there.

    I also know that there are more women than daedalus seems to thing who don’t feel any particular attachment to or love for their children. It can’t all be blamed on some overt stress, either. Maybe it is simply that the woman never wanted to be pregnant. Sometimes it is simply that the pregnancy itself makes the woman so sick and uncomfortable that they just can’t feel affection for the source of the long sickness, even though they know they should. And then there are women who are simply seemingly indifferent to their children: don’t love them, don’t hate them, don’t care enough to do anything particularly bad OR particularly good beyond seeing that legal minimum requirements for the keeping of children are met, don’t feel any attachment to them. Maybe it’s faulty hormone signalling. However, I have met/worked with a few of these, and there seems to be considerable overlap with a population of people who have had entirely indifferent parenting themselves, and/or who regard pregnancy as something that “just happens” (I’ve heard more than one of them refer to “falling pregnant again”, as if it were something like catching a cold).

  10. This was SUCH an interesting blog post. The only thing that really hit me was when you talked about denial. I really think some women go into COMPLETE denial for the majority of their pregnancy. If they don’t acknowledge it and don’t think about it, it isn’t happening. This doesn’t seem to be the case with this girl, but I’ve heard so many stories how women truly believe they aren’t pregnant when they are in the throws of labor. The denial obviously went further than her, to her friends and parents. What is saddest is that a baby died a very terrible death.

  11. This poor girl, we don’t know her circumstances. However, having grown up in a fundamentalist (mostly) family myself, I can guess. Certainly you all know that “S” word that females are branded with? As a hint, it ends in an “lut.” A small enough town, and that’s enough to, essentially, end the poor girl’s life as she knows it. She had sex (a biological imperative that only some of us are able to deny), 9 months later, a baby popped out; the baby would destroy her life. “Her” life; an actual, living, breathing, adult (mostly) human being. Poor thing; she had to live with this for 9 months; didn’t have the courage or wherewithal to, what? get thrown out of her house, lose her boyfriend, end up homeless; until, the inevitable happened….. Have some sympathy.

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