Metro

Abandoned to happiness

File photo
Irene and James Kasper.

It was nearing dusk on the first Sunday of last December when a young woman carrying a newborn walked through the automatic sliding doors of Whidden Memorial Hospital in Everett and told a desk clerk in a calm voice: I can’t take care of the baby. I’m leaving her here.

The clerk called the emergency room. Linda Fuller, a veteran secretary, came out first, her heart racing. She knew about the state’s relatively new Safe Haven law, but had never been part of any dropoff.

Without hesitation, the woman, who seemed in her early 20s, handed the infant over to Fuller. She said the baby girl, who had hazel eyes and blond hair and was swaddled in a blue blanket, was less than two days old. Before Fuller could ask more questions, the woman turned and left through the same sliding doors.

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“She seemed very resolved,” Fuller recalled.

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The baby would later be given a tiny ankle hospital bracelet, which read: “Doe, Jane. Homeless.”

Massachusetts was slow to embrace the idea of anonymous drop-offs for desperate mothers. When it passed the Safe Haven law five years ago, it was the 47th state to adopt such a statute. Critics expressed concerns it would legalize child abandonment, and that these babies would never know their biological origins because no answers were required from parents. On that December day, Baby Jane Doe lost virtually any chance of knowing her past as soon as the woman - referred to legally as the “Unknown Mother” - left the hospital.

But if the primary goal is to save babies from being left in dumpsters or on doorsteps - and to give these children a second chance through adoption - recent statistics suggest the law has made a difference.

Baby Jane Doe is one of 12 babies so far who have been surrendered under the law, which permits a parent to anonymously drop off any infant under a week old to any hospital, police station, or fire station, without legal repercussions. Most mothers have chosen hospitals as the refuge for their babies, and some have even been convinced by counselors from the 24-hour Safe Haven hotline (866-814-SAFE) to give birth anonymously in a hospital, rather than at home, to ensure a safe delivery.

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Safe Haven officials said most of the mothers who have given up their newborns had contacted the hotline at least once with questions before they surrendered their babies.

The mother of Baby Jane Doe took good care of the newborn in the baby’s earliest days.

The preliminary assessment by the Whidden medical staff around 4 p.m. on Dec. 7 showed the baby girl was in robust health: She weighed about 7 pounds, showed strong vital signs, and was clean and well-nourished. The baby showed no signs of abuse or sickness.

Because Whidden Memorial had no pediatric or maternity wards, the newborn was transferred by ambulance that evening to Cambridge Hospital’s pediatrics ward. There, she was given tests to rule out drugs, alcohol or other foreign substances in her system. All came back negative.

Based on the age of the umbilical cord, the staff believed the mother delivered at home, and probably within four or five days - as opposed to one or two, as they were initially told.

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“The baby looked beautiful and healthy,” said Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief of emergency medicine for the Cambridge Health Alliance, which oversees the Whidden and Cambridge Hospitals.

On Monday, the day after Baby Jane Doe was dropped off, the adoption supervisor for the Cambridge office of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, Ann Beck, arrived at her office to hear the news from colleagues. As required by law, hospital staff had called the agency to announce a new Safe Haven baby.

She was the 11th baby left under the law, and Beck’s second experience with such a case. Compared with the emotional and legal complexities of virtually every case in her office, Safe Haven baby cases are relatively simple. The biological parents are unknown, so the legal process of “terminating parental rights” proceeds like a formality. And babies - particularly healthy ones - are easy to place. Right away, they dispensed with the need for temporary foster parents.

“From the very beginning, you’re looking for a long-term permanent home,” Beck later said.

Amid the hundreds of files in her office, Beck instantly thought of one couple.

Irene Kasper, 46, worked as a cashier for an area municipality, and her husband, James, 51, was a landscaper. They were married four years ago. Given their age, they decided against having a child of their own, and went through the state’s training program to become adoptive parents. Adoption had special meaning to them too: James, as an infant, had been adopted through Catholic Charities. They initially told social workers that, given that they would be older parents, they preferred a child between the ages of 2 and 6.

In late October 2008, the state had placed a 2-year-old girl into their home for possible adoption. The couple was immediately drawn to the high-energy toddler. But after only two days, the child’s uncle surfaced seemingly out of nowhere, offering to take his niece. Almost as quickly as the girl arrived, the child was plucked from the Kasper’s home.

The couple was devastated, though they understood the priority given to relatives. Social workers felt badly for the Kaspers, and noted the compassion they showed.

“They understood, even though it hurt,” Beck said.

Irene Kasper was at her office desk going over paperwork when her telephone rang.

”We have a newborn who was dropped off,” said a social worker from Beck’s office just hours after they heard about Baby Jane Doe. “Would you be interested?”

Irene was taken aback. She never thought the agency would offer a newborn to her and her husband, given their age. The social worker suggested the couple may want to visit the baby, who was on the fifth floor of Cambridge Hospital.

When Irene and James saw the baby, they were smitten. The girl seemed calm in her bassinet, her complexion rosy and healthy. Irene snapped a picture with her cellphone.

The next day, barely able to contain her excitement, Irene phoned the social worker: “We are very much interested in that baby.”

Baby Jane Doe would remain at the hospital another four nights for observation. Each night, Irene came after work to give the baby a bottle, change her diapers, and hold her in the rocking chair.

As soon as the couple brought the girl home, they decided she looked Irish and should have a typical Irish name, so they called her Caitlyn Rose. Irene is Portuguese on her father’s side, but Irish on her mother’s. Within two weeks, Caitlyn began sleeping through the night, her favorite mobile whirring and playing lullabies above her. The girl adjusted well to a family day care run by a friend of Irene’s.

In the months ahead, as Caitlyn began sitting up, playing with her rattle, and eating solid foods, the joy the couple felt was tempered by anxieties born of their recent past. They didn’t want to risk losing her if the mother suddenly reappeared. For this very reason, the couple had been discreet about revealing to others where they live.

They couldn’t bear the idea of life without the infant who was now calling them “Mama” and “Dada.”

As they prepared for a Thanksgiving feast with family and friends this month, the Kaspers had an important date on their calendar: the Nov. 20 finalization of their adoption of their girl in Middlesex Juvenile Court in Cambridge, the same courthouse where James had been adopted as an infant. This was a big day for the couple because it would erase all their insecurities with one simple word - that the adoption would be “irrevocable.”

The date happened to be National Adoption Day, and so they appeared in court with scores of other families, as well as state dignitaries. As Governor Deval Patrick, DCF Commissioner Anthony “Angelo” McClain, and judges gave prepared remarks to a packed audience, little Caitlyn rested on her father’s shoulder, wearing a black and pink dress and patent-leather Mary Jane shoes. When the song “We are Family” began playing over the loudspeakers, James lifted his hand to Caitlyn’s - and they did a high-five.

After a lengthy wait, the Kaspers were called to Courtroom Three. After Judge Gwendolyn Tyre reviewed the legal paperwork involving “Baby Jane Doe,” she turned to the couple holding their baby.

“The child’s name is now changed to Caitlyn Rose Kasper,” the judge declared to the smiling couple. “This adoption is final and irrevocable.”

Elated that Caitlyn is now legally theirs, Irene and James said they know their daughter will someday be curious about her past. Irene has a special box where she keeps memories for Caitlyn - including the Winnie the Pooh outfit and white cap that she wore on the day she was dropped off.

James has felt the void of not knowing about his genetic past; he grew up without any information about his birth parents. When Caitlyn is old enough to understand, they plan to pay tribute to the woman who took loving care of Caitlyn in her earliest days, and then made an agonizing decision.

Irene has already thought about what she will eventually tell Caitlyn about the biological mother who walked out the automatic doors of that Everertt hospital.

“I give her all the credit in the world for what she did,” Irene said. “She took great care of this girl.”