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Alaska law allowing surrender of newborns unused

Michelle Theriault Boots
Anne Raup

Under an Alaska law passed in 2008, Ashley Ard could have taken her newborn daughter to a fire station or a hospital and handed her over for good without fear of prosecution.

No questions asked. Paperwork optional.

But more than five years after the Safe Surrender For Infants Act became law, no one has used it to give up a baby.

The law was meant to offer desperate mothers a way out, said Christy Lawton, director of the state's Office of Children's Services.

That makes the case of Ard -- a 24-year-old married Army specialist and mother of a toddler, who had just moved to Alaska -- all the more perplexing and heartbreaking, said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, an Anchorage Republican and the legislator who first proposed the bill.

"I just didn't understand how something like that could happen. Especially in light of this law," she said. "And I really still don't."

Anchorage Police say Ard left her baby at an Eagle River park at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 15. The newborn was wrapped in a towel and hidden under a bush. A dog-walker found the newborn dead at 9:30 a.m. that day.

The 24-year-old mother now faces second-degree murder charges.

Turner Park, where the baby was discovered, is about a mile from a fire station.

BROAD SUPPORT

Alaska was one of the last states in the country to enact a safe surrender law.

In 1999, Texas was the first.

The Texas law, called the Baby Moses Act, was a response to the discovery of 13 infants found discarded in the Houston area over a 10-month period. Three of the babies were found dead.

Other states soon followed.

By 2008, only Alaska and Nebraska lacked a surrender law.

Infants had been abandoned in Alaska before, according to the Department of Health and Social Services:

In September 1986, a baby boy was found in a box beside a Salvation Army collection bin in Muldoon. In January 1994, a hypothermic baby girl was left outside a clothing store in Peters Creek, wrapped in a blanket. Later that year, another baby girl was found in a bathroom stall at Alaska Regional Hospital. And in 1995, a baby boy was abandoned on a sidewalk on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

LeDoux said she proposed the law because she thought it could save lives. She had "desperate teenagers" in mind, she said.

Alaska's safe surrender bill drew unusually broad support from the beginning: Both Planned Parenthood and the Anchorage Baptist Temple testified in favor of it, LeDoux said.

"By the time it reached the floor it actually didn't take much convincing of anybody in the Legislature," she said.

The state publicized the law with public service announcements and advertisements, said Susan Morgan, a DHSS spokeswoman.

It allows parents to surrender newborns at hospitals, fire stations or to emergency medical service providers or police officers up to 21 days after birth.

A CALL FOR HELP

Abandonment of newborns is rare in Alaska, said Lawton.

That might be because of the small population and relatively tight-knit social structures, especially in rural areas, she said.

Infant homicide is extremely rare but attracts intense media attention, according to the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mothers who kill their newborns are usually younger than 25, unmarried, in denial of their pregnancy and emotionally isolated, according to a 2004 study published by the center.

Almost all give birth alone, outside of a hospital. Many report "dissociative psychosis" during delivery, feeling the experience was happening to someone else, the study said.

Police believe Ard gave birth at her Eagle River apartment and left the house with the newborn in the early hours of Oct. 15.

After the death was discovered, police sent out an advisory to media saying they were looking for a woman who might need medical attention for childbirth-related injuries.

Detectives honed in on Ard after she called 911 in the early afternoon because she was bleeding, said Sgt. Cindi Stanton of the APD. Detectives arrived at her apartment around the same time paramedics showed up, Stanton said.

She was treated and interviewed by police at a local hospital.

'IT'S VERY HARD'

Little is known about Ashley Ard's life circumstances in the months and weeks before she gave birth.

She had just moved to Alaska from Fort Benning, Ga., in September. She hadn't yet reported for duty at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

In April 2012, when Ard was pregnant with her now 14-month-old daughter, she was interviewed by a Fort Benning-area TV station for a story about a baby shower held for Army wives whose husbands were deployed.

Wearing a denim jacket and a smile, Ard told the news crew she'd have her baby alone while her husband was deployed.

That was part of the job for a military family, she said. But it wasn't easy.

"On top of being a wife, a mother, and a soldier and a student," she said. "It's very hard."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com