Babies will be kept in the hospital for a few days and then put into the county child services system.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Scared and frightened mothers who don't want their newborns now have safe places to take them in Lawrence County.
The county's three hospitals -- Ellwood City, Jameson Memorial and St. Francis -- have agreed to accept infants, no questions asked, from mothers.
The program is called "A Hand To Hold" and enables mothers to leave their babies up to 30 days old with emergency room nurses at participating hospitals.
Matthew Mangino, county district attorney, has agreed not to prosecute if the infants are unharmed.
"Any time an infant is abandoned, it's tragic. We believe we can prevent these tragedies with a program like A Hand To Hold," Mangino said.
Here's why: "Our program is designed specifically for the desperate and frightened mother who has kept her pregnancy a secret and, for whatever reason, has chosen not to work with an adoption agency," said Patti Weaver, program founder.
"In many cases, these mothers are in denial and do not accept that they are pregnant until their baby is born."
Last week, a newborn was found wrapped in a towel and a plastic bag in a patch of woods in Ellwood City.
The child's mother, Kathleen D. Winterbottom, 19, and her boyfriend, Jason L Wilds, 23, both of Portersville Road, Ellport, face charges of concealing the death of a child, abuse of a corpse and conspiracy.
Winterbottom told police she miscarried the baby June 10 in her apartment and she and Wilds put it in the woods later that day.
Police received an anonymous tip about a week later and found the baby.
An autopsy could not reveal whether the baby was stillborn or alive and later died.
Local hospital officials say they welcome the program.
Hospital officials: "These are very involved situations and [the district attorney] has cut the red tape and allowed hospitals to do this," said Thomas White, president of the Jameson Health System.
Herb Skuba, president of the Ellwood City Hospital, said he didn't hesitate when asked to participate. "We feel hospitals are supposed to be compassionate places," he said.
A St. Francis Hospital spokeswoman said this brings the New Castle facility in line with the rest of the St. Francis Health System in Allegheny County, which already participates in A Hand To Hold.
The program was launched in Allegheny County in August 2000, just months after three abandoned babies were found in that county, said Stephen Zappala, Allegheny County district attorney.
"We thought, as a community ,we were not doing enough. For the last 10 months since this program started, we have not had a child who has been found dead," he said.
There also have been no babies dropped off at hospitals, either, Weaver said.
A public awareness campaign set to start this summer could change that, however, she said.
Other communities that have actively advertised the programs on radio and television have had unharmed newborns dropped off in emergency rooms, she said.
"The hope is that all babies will be given a chance to live, a place to live and a future," Weaver said.
Any child dropped off will be kept in the hospital for a few days and then put in the county child welfare system and eventually adopted, she said. Mothers who change their minds can even get their newborns back after a period of counseling, Weaver said.
The program is only available in Lawrence and Allegheny counties, but officials say legislation is pending in the state Legislature to provide funding for similar programs across Pennsylvania.
Federal legislation providing funding for havens and an attempt to find out how many abandoned babies there are each year in this country has been introduced by U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart of Bradford Woods, R-4th.