In the middle of the night, a newborn, just hours old, was carried to a small, discreetly lit glass door located near the public entrance of the Grey Nuns Community Hospital’s emergency department. After opening the door, an adult leaned inside to place the healthy baby in a bassinet. A letter was tucked by the baby’s side and the door was securely closed.
And then the person who brought the newborn to the safe haven walked away into the night’s darkness, their identity never known. The door locked as soon as it was closed. And just 60 seconds from the time the door was first opened, emergency department staff were alerted that a baby had been left in their Angel Cradle, one of only two dedicated healthcare spaces in Alberta—both operated by Covenant Health—where a parent can safely and anonymously leave a newborn.
A newborn safe haven
“We don’t know what circumstances brought that
baby to us, but it is there for people who need us,” says Gordon Self, Chief
Mission and Ethics Officer at Covenant Health of the only baby left since Angel
Cradle opened in 2013.
“Angel Cradle is a newborn safe haven that we provide as a last resort for a person who, in a moment of desperation, might be at risk of leaving a baby in an unsafe location. It’s an opportunity to ensure that the baby is safe and gets the proper care that it needs.”
Babies abandoned in unsafe spaces, sometimes dying before they were discovered, prompted the need for Angel Cradles to be opened at the Grey Nuns and Misericordia Community Hospital, both adjacent to the emergency department. The newborn safe haven’s small portal doors open to the outside for a person to anonymously leave their baby. Another opening on the other side is connected to the emergency department so staff can retrieve the baby, protecting the identity of the person leaving their baby but with the assurance the newborn is safe.
A baby left in the Angel Cradle is assessed and admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care unit. At the same time, Alberta Children’s Services is contacted to assume temporary custody of the newborn.
“This was needed because we have seen cases across Canada and elsewhere where babies have been left, sometimes with tragic outcomes. So we wanted to have that option to try to mitigate that from happening,” says Gordon.
In 2017 when the baby was left, no details about the newborn, including the gender, were revealed to the public because of the promise of anonymity, explains Gordon.
And that’s important because a desperate parent needs to know that no one will come looking for them as long as there is no evidence that the baby has been harmed. Even if the mother headed immediately from the Angel Cradle to the emergency department to seek medical care, staff would not connect her to the baby unless she said something about the infant, says Gordon.
“We don’t track down the mother because anonymity is key,” he explains. “If they’re worried about being identified, they may not use the safe haven.”
Gordon says we can’t make assumptions as to why a mother would leave a baby in an Angel Cradle.
“It may actually be a source of comfort for a mother: ‘If I have to leave my baby, I know it’s going to get good care. Someone is going to look after the baby. Even though I can’t, in this moment, look after the baby.’ By leaving the baby in a place that’s safe, I think it says a lot about the person’s care and love for that baby, that they would do it in a way that the baby has a chance.”
“We can be that hope.”
Hospital staff believe strongly that having an Angel Cradle is essential, says Jeff Hazelden, Registered Nurse at Grey Nuns. As part of Covenant Health’s commitment to be prepared to help a baby left at any hour, Angel Cradle is tested three times every day at both sites.
“I’m passionate about it because I want to care for people when they’re at their lowest points, when they’re hopeless, when they don’t feel they have any options,” he says. ”We are here. We can be that option. We are that option. We can be that hope.”
At the Misericordia, teams feel good knowing they are providing a safe space and they’ve tried to make it more welcoming by adding a few extras, such as a teddy bear for the parent to take with them, says Besy Candray, Registered Nurse.
“The response from the staff has been really overwhelming,” says Besy. “They are so supportive of it to the point that staff have donated blankets for the cradle and a memory gift for the mom that she is able to take.”
Angel Cradle is designed to be a last resort. A pregnant woman is encouraged to think about other options and seek help.
“Reach out and get help, if you can. There are really good people with social services who offer support,” says Gordon. “If for whatever reason they can’t get help, perhaps because they’re hiding their pregnancy and can’t come forward, then we have a safe place to leave the baby.”
Gordon says Covenant Health modelled its safe havens after the Angel Cradle at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
“If it’s never used again, that’s fine. We want to be ready in case somebody one day does need to turn to Angel Cradle again,” he says. “We’re trying to manage a gap and to allow that child to have another day.”
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