Nova Scotia

Should parents who abandon their babies be spared prosecution?

An infant girl found abandoned in Halifax on Sunday is safe, but cases like these don't always end so well. One organization says "safe-haven" legislation would encourage parents intent on leaving their babies to do so safely.

Case of baby abandoned this week in Halifax first in city since 1990s

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is illegal to abandon a child under the age of 10 if their life or health is likely to be endangered. But charges are rarely laid in such cases. (Shchipkova Elena/Shutterstock)

The founder of a national charitable organization says safe-haven legislation that would legally protect parents who abandon their infants could encourage those intent on doing so to give up their babies safely and anonymously.

Halifax Regional Police say they continue to look for information about a baby girl who was abandoned on a grassy area off Quinpool Road Sunday afternoon. The infant was found wrapped in a blanket just before 5 p.m., when the temperature was hovering around an unseasonably warm 14 C.

The month-old child is healthy and now in the province's care. However Ellen Campbell, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness, said all too often abandoned infants don't survive.

Her organization names and holds funerals for the babies found dead. In one recent example in Ontario, Campbell said a 15-year-old exchange student left a newborn in a suitcase and returned to China before the child was found. 

"We bury these babies. We have buried six alone in Ontario in the past few years. These are babies that were just thrown in the garbage," she said.

Abandonment charges rare in Canada

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is illegal to abandon a child under the age of 10 if their life or health is likely to be endangered. But charges are rarely laid in such cases.

The incident this week in Halifax was the first in the city since the 1990s. Officers have been going over surveillance video footage, looking for witnesses and trying to identify the child and her parents, Const. Dianne Penfound told CBC Tuesday.

Halifax police say the infant was found on a lawn in the 6200-block of Quinpool Road. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

In Ontario, Campbell said two or three newborns are found abandoned each year. Her group has been pushing unsuccessfully for provincial legislation that would protect parents from criminal prosecution, similar to laws in the United States. 

"That would be better than throwing [infants] in the dumpster," she said. "Our focus is on saving the baby. Sometimes these women are on drugs or schizophrenic, or they may be just in a panic." 

But Grant Wilson, president of the Canadian Children's Rights Council, said cases of child abandonment are rare in Canada and he cautioned against comparisons with the United States, where it's more common.

"We have a totally different health-care system that helps tremendously," said Wilson, whose non-profit advocacy group has been around since the early 1990s. "We've lifted children out of living in poverty to a great degree, with a few exceptions."

Wilson said the issue in the U.S. is that some low-income women simply can't afford to give birth in a hospital, which he said can cost about $10,000 US for those without private health insurance.

There are "very few" child abandonment cases in Canada because the country has a different social system, he said.

"We don't need [safe-haven laws] in Canada," he said.

Two baby boxes opened at an Edmonton hospital in 2013. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

In some Canadian cities, there are drop-off areas where people can leave infants without repercussions. 

At one hospital in downtown Vancouver, babies can be left in a special bassinet and a nurse will be alerted. The program launched in 2010 and within three months someone left a baby there. Three years later, two Edmonton hospitals adopted a similar model. 

Campbell said she'd like to see similar programs developed in hospitals across the country.

Why parents abandon babies

There are reasons aside from mental illness, religious and cultural issues that can prompt a parent to abandon a baby, Wilson said. 

He cited the 2007 case of a Saskatchewan woman who gave birth in a Walmart bathroom stall and left the newborn in a toilet because she believed the baby was dead. The woman later testified that she didn't even know she was pregnant, and in 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld her acquittal on a charge of child abandonment.

"It's hard to believe, but that actually does happen," said Wilson.

In February 2007, an 18-year-old student living alone in Saskatoon said she didn't know where to turn when she gave birth at home to a baby girl and then hours later left her on a neighbourhood doorstep. The young woman came forward more than 48 hours after the newborn was found by the homeowners.

The woman told police she chose the house because she saw lights on inside, heard a dog barking and felt comfortable that the baby would be found quickly on the frigid morning. The child was wrapped in a towel and comforter in -29 C weather.

With files from Amy Smith, Canadian Press


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