Robbin Uchison was a nurse 10 years ago at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, when someone dropped a small baby off at the hospital’s emergency room — the first infant in the hospital’s history given up under the Illinois Abandoned Newborn Protection Act, also called the Safe Haven Law, which was passed in 2001.
“She was relinquished downstairs in emergency and, if I remember, they were going to hang on to her downstairs, but we insisted she come up to the nursery, which was probably the better place for her,” said Uchison, a 31-year employee with the hospital who is now director of its Family Birth Place.
“She came to us on a Sunday and so we named her Grace Elizabeth Sunday,” Uchison said, as that baby, now a precocious 10-year-old whose legal name is Aidan Jane Millar-Nicholson, sat a few seats away from her.
Millar-Nicholson was flanked by her adopted parents, Lesley and Lori Millar-Nicholson, during an Oct. 4 press conference designed to be both a homecoming and a public service announcement of sorts to draw attention to a law that, according to its advocates, is still relatively unknown, particularly among mothers who may be desperate for safe alternatives to raising the babies themselves.
The Safe Haven Law allows mothers to anonymously leave infants with staff members at any hospital, fire or police station, or emergency medical provider in the state as long as the babies are no older than 30 days and unharmed.
The parents don’t need to answer any questions or fear prosecution. They do, however, have the option of accepting a packet containing information about the Safe Haven law, their rights as birth parents, health care resources and a self-mailer used for sharing basic information about the infant.
If the infant doesn’t appear abused or neglected, the “relinquishing parent may choose to remain anonymous and no attempt will be made to identify him/her,” according to the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation’s website.
“Within 12 hours of receiving the child, either directly from a birth parent or upon transport from a police or fire station, the hospital must report the relinquishment to the Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) State Central Registry,” the website explains. “DCFS will then confirm that the newborn is not a missing child and arrange for placement with a licensed Illinois adoption agency.”
Lesley and Lori Millar-Nicholson had been waiting to adopt for two years when they received a phone call the day after Aidan was dropped off at West Suburban. They drove from their home near the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where Lesley worked.
“On Monday, I was at work and I got a phone call from our adoption agency case worker,” Lori recalled. “They tried to reach Lesley, but she was in a meeting, so I had to make an executive decision. She said, ‘A beautiful baby girl was dropped off at West Suburban around nine o’clock. Would you like to adopt her?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.'”
“The nice thing about the Safe Haven law is that there’s a list of adoption agencies and so the next parents on the list are contacted, so babies don’t have to go into foster homes,” said Uchison. “They’ll go right into the home of the people they’ll be living with.”
By Wednesday, Lesley and Lori were in the hospital’s lobby, waiting anxiously for the young girl they now simply call, ‘A.J.’
“We were in the lobby waiting and the hospital social worker came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got to keep her. Everybody wants this baby,” Lesley said. “And what a difference she’s made in our lives. She’s amazing.”
For most of the press conference, Aidan sat smiling quietly and tended to a doll that she’d gotten at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Her parents said that they had been in Chicago three years ago, visiting from Massachusetts, where they now live, when they drove through West Suburban’s parking lot. At the time, Aidan wasn’t ready to go inside.
She’s since changed her mind.
“It’s a mixed feeling of emotions,” Aidan said, when asked how it now feels, all these years later, to be back the place where her new life began. “I’m happy and excited.”
Dawn Geras, the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation’s executive chairman, said that Aidan was the 36th baby to be relinquished after the Safe Haven Act was passed in Illinois. So far, 120 babies in the state have been relinquished under the Illinois law—well over half of them in Cook County. Over 3,300 babies across the country have been relinquished under similar laws in other states, she said.
“Aidan Jane is the best spokesperson for the fact that the law works,” she said.
Lesley said that her family has, over the last decade, worked to be flag bearers for the law and “Aidan has been the biggest flag bearer.”
“She’s done lemonade sells, sent her own checks, all sorts of things, to raise funds to save abandoned babies,” Lesley said. “She’s helped us to tell the story and get the word out about the law. It is vitally important that birth parents know that there are options.”
Since the Illinois law’s passage, 78 newborns have been illegally abandoned and 40 of them haven’t survived — left in unsafe spaces like in bushes and garbage cans.
“If you’ve ever been to a baby’s funeral, there’s nothing worse,” Geras said. “It’s heartbreaking when you know that [measures protected by the Safe Haven law] could be an alternative.”