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Safe havens needed for unwanted babies, advocates say after alleged Toronto report

Police investigate a scene at a plaza at Keele and Lawrence Streets in Toronto after a baby was left outside a building on Jan. 16, 2018.

Chris Donovan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The media frenzy surrounding reports that a newborn baby had been abandoned in Toronto highlights the need for Canada to fall in line with other countries around the world and offer safe havens for unwanted infants, advocacy groups said Wednesday.

Few details of the case are known as city police remain tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation.

They have confirmed that a woman claiming to be a passerby discovered a baby boy behind a plaza in the city's west end. Media reports, however, have since quoted sources as saying the person making the report was the child's teenage mother, who was visiting the country from abroad.

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Police said they have located the mother and do not intend to lay charges, but said the investigation into the matter is ongoing. The baby remains in hospital in critical condition, while the mother is receiving undisclosed medical care.

Regardless of the particulars of the case, advocates said it shines a light on what they perceive as a gap in Canada's child welfare system.

All 50 states in the U.S. and several countries throughout the European Union have "safe haven" legislation in place that allows parents to leave children in a secure location and walk away without identifying themselves. Proponents of the system said it allows parents coming from vulnerable situations to ensure a baby's safety while preserving their own anonymity.

But Canada has no such law on the books, a situation the Canadian Centre for Abuse Awareness would like to see changed.

"There's nothing. There's no resources or places to go or things to do," president Helena Kameka said in a telephone interview. "All there is is the fear of the parent."

Kameka said abandoning a child is not illegal in Canada so long as the baby is unharmed.

But she said widespread ignorance of this fact sometimes prompts parents to take desperate steps which could paradoxically leave them open to charges if caught.

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Kameka said her organization has been lobbying the Ontario government on the issue for years without success, saying she's unsure as to why efforts have met with so much resistance.

Despite its widespread adoption outside of Canada, safe havens have come in for strong public criticism from some prominent international voices.

In a 2012 report, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called for an outright ban on such spaces, which are often referred to as "baby boxes."

"They are a bad message for society," said Maria Herczog, a Hungarian child psychologist on the UN committee. "Instead of providing help and addressing some of the social problems and poverty behind these situations, we're telling people they can just leave their baby and run away."

The committee argued the practice encourages women to have children without getting medical care. It also challenged the perception that only mothers were leaving babies in the safe havens, saying sometimes pimps or others in positions of power over a woman may take a child away from its mother without having to face consequences.

Some theorize that Canada is particularly resistant to the idea because of the nature of its health-care system and social safety net.

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Dr. Geoffrey Cundiff, regional head of obstetrics and gynecology for British Columbia's Providence Health Care, said Canadians are more likely to believe that existing systems should make it easier to care for newborns, leading to increased stigma for parents who relinquish their infants.

But he said the practice of abandoning babies is more common than many believe.

"(Babies) are abandoned in hospital monthly. Women come in, give birth, and then leave. But in the community it seems like a different issue."

The lack of safe spaces for babies born out of hospital prompted Cundiff to set up one of the few safe spaces available in Canada.

Since 2010, the Angel's Cradle program has operated an incubated box at Vancouver's St. Paul's hospital where parents can leave an unwanted baby. An alarm will sound after the baby has been inside for 30 seconds, giving parents time to walk away.

Since then, two Edmonton hospitals have established similar spaces. Cundiff said the Vancouver Angel's Cradle has been used twice since it was set up.

Cundiff said it's important for vulnerable parents to have access to a channel that will protect both the baby's safety and their own anonymity.

For Kameka, the need for safe havens is more explicitly about the children.

"When you're a newborn and you're discarded, you have rights," she said. "You're a citizen of this country, and it's just unthinkable that it's not important for us to protect those who can't speak for themselves."

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