Home Safe

Donna O’Keefe keeps the first tiny outfits worn by her two infant sons in a bedroom closet in her Round Rock; Texas; home. There’s James’s full-length onesie with its pastel animals and Ryan’s powder-blue short-sleeved romper; still showing an unlaundered spit-up stain. “I’m not sure whether to wash it;” O’Keefe frets. Her careful preservation is part maternal sentiment; part record-keeping: These are the only mementos the boys will ever have of the anonymous woman who gave birth to them 18 months apart and abandoned them at two Austin-area hospitals. “She took great care to dress them;” says O’Keefe; 35. “She must have loved them.”

Perhaps she did. But it is O’Keefe and her husband; Michael; 55; who have given the boys a loving home; thanks to a controversial state law that allows biological mothers to give up newborn infants; anonymously and without fear of prosecution; at safe locations such as medical facilities or fire and police stations. Starting with Texas’s 1999 Baby Moses law; more than 40 states have passed safe-haven laws-all in reaction to a rash of cases in which women abandoned their newborns to die. Indeed; the young mother who abandoned Ryan; now 2; initially threatened to harm him rather than face her family. When she learned of safe haven; she jumped at the opportunity. “Whatever her situation was;” says Donna; “she felt this was the only way out.”

Because anonymity is central to safe-haven laws; details of the boys’ births are sketchy. When she had Ryan; the mother was 20 and living at home and had hidden the pregnancy from her parents. When she went into labor she drove herself to a motel and gave birth alone; cutting the umbilical cord with scissors. Distraught; she picked up the yellow pages and called an adoption agency. According to Donna; official documents said; “The young woman sounded frantic and stated; ‘I don’t want my parents to know; I don’t want to burden them. I am just going to throw the baby away if you can’t help me.’ ” The social worker told her about the Baby Moses law; then picked her up and drove her to Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital.

Meanwhile; Donna and Michael O’Keefe’s long wait for a child of their own was about to come to an end. Donna; a native of Saskatchewan; Canada; was working as a lab technician at a hospital in Saudi Arabia when she met Michael at a local swimming pool in 1994. The father of four grown daughters from a previous marriage; Michael; a Vietnam vet from Killeen; Texas; was doing missile-maintenance training for the Saudi Arabian military. Donna wasted no time with small talk. “She wanted to know immediately if I was married or not;” says Michael with a laugh. “I liked it that she was so open and honest.” Next question: Did he want more children? “He said yes;” Donna recalls; “so I thought that was great.”

They married in 1996; eventually relocating to Round Rock; outside Austin; where Donna got work at a hospital. But their family plans hit a hurdle when Michael’s surgery to reverse a 1983 vasectomy proved ineffective. “There was some grief that we wouldn’t have a biological child;” says Donna; “but I always considered adoption a possibility. I knew there were kids out there that needed us.” The couple took a two-month class for potential adoptive parents and in May 2000 were approved as foster parents; agreeing up front to accept “legal risk” children—those whose parents had not yet had their parental rights terminated. Even so; “they told us; ‘You are not going to get a baby;’ ” recalls Donna. “They said babies don’t come into the system much.”

Then; on Sept. 25; 2000; a state social worker called. “Donna came running and yelling and jumping up and down and crying; ‘You’re a father! You’re a father!’ ” says Michael. After a stop to buy diapers and an infant car seat; they rushed to the hospital where Ryan; three weeks premature; was in the neonatal intensive-care unit. “We got to hold him and feed him;” says Michael. “He was ours from that day.” They took him home the next.

Despite such happy outcomes; some question whether safe-haven laws are the right answer. Adam Pertman; executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute; a nonprofit research center in New York City; says his group will release a study in March showing that the number of abandoned-newborn deaths has not dropped since the laws took effect. “Women who are in so much distress that they are going to leave their infant in a toilet do not go to a safe haven;” says Pertman. Others complain that regardless of their efficacy; the laws give young mothers a too easy way to abdicate responsibility. And many find it troubling that the laws permit complete anonymity; leaving newborns without a record of their medical histories. “Anonymous abandonment should not be codified by law;” says Marley Greiner; executive chair of adoptee-rights group Bastard Nation (see page 98).

To supporters such considerations are insignificant if the laws save even one life. Tim Jaccard; a medic with the Nassau County; N.Y.; police department; became a safe-haven advocate after he found 14 dead babies in Dumpsters; backyards and even a toilet bowl in 1998. Two years later New York passed a safe-haven law. “We saved 27 babies last year; and zero infants were found abandoned in New York;” says Jaccard; who has assisted at secret births in Central Park and once in a girl’s bedroom while her parents slept down the hall. “I do not want to find another dead baby.”

The O’Keefes believe their two boys might have met that fate if their mother hadn’t heard of the Baby Moses law. The mother relinquished parental rights immediately; but technically the O’Keefes couldn’t legally adopt Ryan until his father’s parental rights had been terminated as well. The state’s Child Protective Services agency tried to locate him (Ryan’s mother had left her name with the hospital but not his) but was unsuccessful. After a waiting period of four months; the O’Keefes formally adopted Ryan on July 3; 2001. “We always felt like he was ours;” said Michael; “but we had a big adoption-celebration party that day.”

Now they’re hoping to celebrate again. After briefly-living in Florida; the O’Keefes returned to Texas in March 2002 and; looking to expand their family; registered their new address with Child Protective Services. Within months the agency called again with news: Ryan’s biological mother had turned over another baby; a 4-day-old boy she had named James. “There was no way for us to say no—and no way we wanted to say no;” says Michael; who is the stay-at-home parent for the two boys while Donna works at the hospital. “How could we tell Ryan one day that we had a chance for him to have his brother with us and we turned him away?” Could the woman have gone through a regular adoption the second time around? Did she use the Baby Moses law as an easy out? Such questions are immaterial to the O’Keefes; who expect James’s adoption to be complete by May. “We’ll never know if she could have done something differently;” says Donna; “and we really don’t want to know.”

But when their sons want to know about the woman who gave birth to them; Donna and Michael say they will be ready. “We will let them know she loved them enough that she knew she couldn’t take care of them;” says Donna. “She didn’t abandon them because she didn’t love them. The opposite is true.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Alicia Dennis in Round Rock; Hope Hamashige in New York City and Barbara Sandler in Chicago

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