bc-100429-angels-cradle

A baby could be left through the small door, near the emergency room entrance of St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver. An alarm sounds to alert staff after a baby is placed in the bassinet. ((Steve Lus/CBC))

A Vancouver hospital plans to offer a safe haven for troubled mothers who want to abandon their newborn babies anonymously.

According to St. Paul's Hospital staff, a so-called angel's cradle will be set up in a private area accessible from just outside the entrance of the downtown hospital's emergency room on Burrard Street, as well as from inside the emergency room itself.

The facility, which opens on Monday, will allow a mother to put a baby in the bassinet and leave before hospital staff are notified by an alarm with a 30-second delay, according to a statement released by the hospital on Thursday morning.

The baby would then be given any necessary treatment by hospital staff before being turned over to the Ministry of Children and Family Development for long-term care.

Dr. Geoffrey Cundiff, the head of obstetrics and gynecology for Providence Health Care, said the hospital decided to open the facility because of the number of abandoned infants that have been found dead in Vancouver in recent years.

'There is a small number of women who, for whatever reason, can't face authorities.' —Dr Geoffrey Cundiff 

"It's troubling to think about a mother abandoning a baby. This brings up all sorts of visceral reactions in people. But it's an unfortunate reality, and all we are trying to do is to care for the baby," he said.

According to a hospital statement, "The procedure for dealing with abandoned infants at the hospital has not changed; we are simply providing a safe place for women to safely and anonymously give up their infants instead of leaving them in a place that puts the baby at risk."

"While there are adoption options for a woman in the Lower Mainland who is unable to care for her newborn baby, women in crisis are sometimes hesitant to access these resources because they want to remain anonymous. Angel's cradle is a way for a woman to give up her newborn safely and remain anonymous," said the hospital.

No police investigations

According to the hospital, the Vancouver Police Department has agreed to support the program as a safe haven, and will not seek charges or investigate any mothers who use the facility.

"There are laws about abandoning babies, but really those are to ensure that a baby is not abandoned in an unsafe place," said Cundiff. "There is a small number of women who, for whatever, reason can't face authorities."

If a mother wants her newborn back after leaving it in the angel's cradle, she can contact the Ministry of Children and Family Development about meeting with a social worker to discuss her options, said the hospital.

While the facility is a first for Canada, Cundiff said the concept dates back to the 12th century when a pope had so-called foundling wheels or baby hatches installed at some church buildings. They eventually became quite popular across Europe, but were phased out by the early 20th century.

Then in the 1950s, European hospitals began opening them again, and in recent years similar facilities have reportedly been opened by governments in several countries, including the U.S., Japan, Pakistan and many European countries.