We need to do more to help mothers with unwanted babies

The drain where the baby was found at Quakers Hill.
The drain where the baby was found at Quakers Hill. Photo: James Alcock

Last week's abandoned baby left down a Sydney drain brings us all together in outrage and despair: how could the mother do this? What kind of society permits this? Why isn't there a better route for women who want to give up their babies?

And most of us consider those questions for a fleeting moment – when we hear the miracle story of the baby who survived for five days in a Quakers Hill drain, or the tragic story of a baby drowned in a toilet. Now we have learnt of a baby's body found buried in a Sydney beach - whether it was stillborn, died after birth or was killed is still being investigated.

Joan van Niekerk has spent 25 years looking for the answer to how we should deal with unwanted babies. She too is still looking for the answer.

A mother and her child at one of China's 'baby hatches'.
A mother and her child at one of China's 'baby hatches'. Photo: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

And she doesn't think baby hatches – like they use in some European countries and China – are the answer.

These are safe havens where as soon as the babies are deposited, alarms go off and support descends. There are much better ways to look after these babies, she says.

But van Niekerk, President of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, says there are ways to help women make choices which will keep both mother and baby safe.

However, it takes cultural change – babies are unplanned, families are angry and services are not perceived as friendly to the women who need them. It's not just actual access, it's also cultural access. Perhaps the mother of the Sydney drain baby felt unable to approach a child welfare service. Or maybe she didn't even know the service existed, says van Niekerk. And all this happens to women where there is no longer supportive family members, no community midwife.

She says: "Now women usually give birth in clinical settings with little family support – and discharged with very little assessment of their psycho-social health."

In South Africa, the levels of abandonment are relatively high. Van Niekerk's organisation has tried for the past few years to research this issue because she believes we could do all do so much more in the way of preventive work.

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Back in Australia, Senator Helen Polley from Tasmania has called for national and uniform laws to stop people abandoning their babies in the street and says Australia must have what she calls Baby Safe Havens.

"We can't delay action any longer," she says. "I demand a public policy response and desperate mothers right around the country demand a response from government."

In July 2013, a baby was abandoned outside an ambulance station in Rockhampton. Four days earlier, another baby, since nicknamed "Moses", was left outside the door of a family's home in the Logan City suburb of Kingston near Brisbane. Further cases include the case of baby Catherine, left outside Dandenong hospital in Victoria in May 2007, and baby Joan, left on the doorstep of a Sydney church, also in 2007. And baby Willow who was found dead between Willow Avenue and Hawthorne Drive at Kingston by council workers on October 17, 2011.

Germany opened it's first 'Baby Bank' in 2000 in Hamburg.
Germany opened it's first 'Baby Bank' in 2000 in Hamburg. Photo: Getty Images

The most recent research on baby hatches shows that in some cases they may be the best option, although only as a last resort.

Japanese researchers Atsushi Asai and Hiroko Ishimoto report that there are some objections: it violates a baby's right to know its origins; it may put the baby's life in medical jeopardy; and may induce abandonment because of the very availability of the hatches. But they also recognise baby hatches as a choice where no other exists. 

And they've had a huge uptake, from Austria to Germany, from Russia to China. There are 25 hatches in China, in constant use. Earlier this year, there was controversy when the hatch in Guangzhou was closed down because it could not cope with the number of babies abandoned.

The Safe Haven and similar laws across the US allow women to take their babies to particular places or to call emergency so the babies can be relinquished.

Van Niekerk has clear views about the abandonment of babies: "This is a heinous crime, but we need to examine what role we can play in the child protection and child health care field to prevent reoccurrences."

She says communities are angry, but must also examine their own role in these acts.

"The anger comes too late."

Jenna Price teaches journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney and is a Fairfax columnist.