CLEVELAND — Ohio's Safe Haven for Newborns law allows birth parents to drop off a baby up to 30 days old at specific locations, no questions asked. That law didn’t exist in 1993, when a woman placed her newborn in a bag and left him in the woods in Geauga County.
Gail Eastwood-Ritchey, 49, was indicted by a Geauga County grand jury on charges of murder and aggravated murder in the case known as “Geauga’s Child.” According to investigators, Ritchey admitted to the crime and also confessed to a similar crime two years prior in Cuyahoga County. She entered not guilty pleas to the charges against her on Monday.
Former News 5 reporter Jodi Brooks helped get Safe Haven laws passed across the country.
“In the beginning of my career, I had covered a lot of these kinds of stories,” Brooks, national founder of the Safe Haven for Newborns laws, said. “Babies in dumpsters, babies in the woods, babies drowned in toilets.”
Ohio’s law was already in place by the time Brooks came to Cleveland, allowing a birth mother or father to drop a baby off with a medical worker at a hospital or fire department or with a peace officer at a law enforcement agency.
“And in that moment of panic, instead of doing something that they would regret their entire life, it was to allow them to take their unwanted newborn to an area hospital or fire station and hand it to somebody and then walk away,” Brooks said.
Brooks said she wishes the Safe Haven law was in place when Geauga’s Child was abandoned.
“My heart breaks for [Ritchey], because had we been there, I really believe that hopefully we would have helped her and potentially her baby,” Brooks said.
Nationwide, Brooks said about 4,000 babies have been saved through Safe Haven laws. Many of those children are now teenagers or young adults.
“The whole idea is once we save that baby, then we can have all these other conversations about, maybe adoption’s a better avenue, or maybe you just need help and you need to get in the system and we can help you and give you those resources so that you can keep this baby,” Brooks said.
Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, said she has mixed feelings about Safe Haven laws.
“I want to save babies and not have situations like this occur, but if somebody drops a baby off in a Safe Haven, they’re not getting the services and support that they obviously need in a crisis situation,” Norris said.
Adoption Network is not an adoption agency, but it is an organization that provides support, education and advocacy for adoptive parents and children, birth families and adult adoptees.
Norris said women who need counseling and support in a desperate situation may not get it if they are just dropping the baby off at a Safe Haven. She also said adult adoptees often have a difficult time down the road trying to find out information about birth parents, although the advent of familial DNA testing and databases may help with that. She said she would strongly encourage someone in a desperate situation to contact an adoption agency and get counseling and consider her options.
“People are operating out of desperation and that’s where I think you want to make sure people have good support systems, that they know what community services on a broader level are available to them,” Norris said. “I think it’s very sad that she hid this from everyone and suffered through whatever the situation was at the time in isolation.”
Brooks said that Safe Haven laws must continue to be highlighted, since not everyone is aware they exist.
“The girl who needs this program six months from today is not listening to this story and she’s not connected with it,” Brooks said. “Our work is never done. We need to keep telling the story about the Safe Haven laws, in Ohio and across the country, so that in that moment of panic, that young, pregnant woman knows that she has an option. She doesn’t have to hurt that baby, we can save that baby and then we can help her along the way.”