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After abandoned baby's death, state invests in spreading word about "safe surrender" law

Michelle Theriault Boots

Four months after a young soldier was charged with murder for allegedly leaving her newborn to die in an Eagle River park, the State of Alaska has launched a $20,000 campaign to raise awareness of a state law that allows mothers to safely relinquish infants without fear of prosecution.

Alaska's Safe Surrender for Infants Act became law in 2008. It allows a parent to give up a baby at a police station, fire station or hospital up to 21 days after birth with no questions asked.

The law has never been used, officials say.

It was meant to prevent cases like that of 26-year-old married Army specialist and mother of a toddler Ashley Ard.

Her baby was found on the morning of Oct. 15 wrapped in a towel and tucked under a bush at Eagle River's Turner Park, which is about a mile from a fire station. Police say she gave birth at her apartment the night before.

Ard had no idea a safe surrender law existed, her lawyer says.

"She had been (in Alaska) a month," attorney Rex Butler said. "She had no idea. If she had known about it, she would have taken advantage of it."

Infant abandonment is rare in Alaska, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

"After the tragedy that happened last fall, it came to our attention that it had been a while since we'd put the word out about safe surrender," said Christy Lawton, head of the state Office of Children's Services. .

The department filmed a public service announcement video in January.

In the commercial, a woman with a trembling lower lip walks through a snowstorm to hand a newborn swaddled in a pink blanket to a fireman.

"The nurse said I need to keep my baby safe, but I can't even keep myself safe. But a law called safe surrender would let me give my baby up if I couldn't care for it," a volunteer actress says in a voice-over. "No one will understand why I gave my baby up. But my baby's safe. My baby's safe."

The public service announcement was shot in January.

"We're trying to emphasize that even when someone is as desperate as they'd feel in those situations, there are options," Lawton said. "We want to make it understandable what those options are."

The rest of the $20,000 budget was used to put the commercial in heavy rotation on Alaska television stations, Lawton said.

The department is also posting flyers with information on the law around the state and placing Google and Facebook ads.

According to a fundraising website maintained by Ard's aunt Sharon Mayo-Taylor, Ard was born in Portsmouth, Va., and joined the Army after high school.

She married and had a daughter during a stint at Fort Benning, Ga. In photos posted on the site, mother and daughter pose for professional portraits in color-coordinated outfits. In September of 2013, the family was reassigned to Alaska.

"Slowly over time we all noticed a change in Ashley," Mayo-Taylor wrote. "She wasn't the bubbly outgoing niece whom I'd known all of her life. Sure she smiled a lot, but those that were close to her knew that it was not always genuine. We saw the joy return to her only when she talked about her little girl."

So far, 53 people have donated a total of $4,900 to Ard's legal defense via the fundraising site.

Little is known about the circumstances surrounding Ard's pregnancy in Alaska.

But documents filed in court by prosecutors say DNA testing shows a man other than Ard's husband to be the father of the deceased newborn.

Ard's aunt writes that her incarcerated niece struggles with being separated from her toddler-aged daughter.

Butler said he's heartened to see the public service announcements inspired by his client's case on TV.

"I just hope that any mother in Ashley's situation, with the fear and depression, that they see this campaign."

Ard is haunted by what happened on Oct. 15, Butler said.

"She didn't want her baby to die," he said. "But here we are."

Ard's mother, who has moved to Alaska to be close to her daughter, tries to visit her at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center daily, he said.

A trial is set for May.

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

 


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com