June 13, 2024

Babies find safe places under Safe Haven laws.

Haven/Judge terminates biological parents' rights    Andi Stempniak

Haven/Judge terminates biological parents’ rights

Hebert family, Joe, Nicole, 4 and Carol in the backyard of their Eau Claire home. Left: Nicole Hebert, 4, runs through her family’s backyard in Eau Claire as her parents, Joe and Carol, look on. Joe and Carol Hebert adopted Nicole after she was anonymously given up by her mother under Wisconsin’s Safe Haven law. Proponents of the law say it helps prevent parents from abandoning their young children. Above: Nicole rides a slide in the backyard with the help of her mother. Joe Hebert of Eau Claire grabs his daughter Nicole as she swings in their backyard.

Posted: Sunday, August 5, 2012 10:00 pm

By Jon Swedien Leader-Telegram staff | 0 comments

On Christmas Day 2007, a woman left her infant girl with an employee at Luther Midelfort’s emergency room.

The next day Joe Hebert, a pilot from Eau Claire, was in Michigan when he received a call from an adoption agency.

“We have a baby here. Do you want her?” asked a social worker with Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

For several years Joe and his wife, Carol, had planned to adopt. The couple were the proud parents of a 7-year-old daughter, Paige, but they had struggled to conceive another child.

Their adoption paperwork was set to expire soon, and the Heberts had considered not renewing it. The wondering and the waiting had worn on them.

“We were almost ready to say just one child,” Joe said.

Joe called Carol after he spoke with the adoption agency. They decided to visit the child that night after he returned from Michigan.

Under Wisconsin’s Safe Haven law, passed in 2001, parents can leave a baby up to 3 days old with an employee at a hospital, law enforcement agency, fire station or emergency medical services provider.

All states have a form of the Safe Haven law. The legislation is designed to prevent babies being abandoned by parents who don’t believe they’re capable of – or aren’t willing to – parent a child.

Under the law, no questions will be asked and parents face no criminal prosecution for neglect or abandonment if they properly relinquish custody of their child, unless there is reasonable evidence the child has been abused.

The child then will be placed with a family looking to adopt.

In west-central and northwestern Wisconsin, the number of Safe Haven adoptions vary year to year, said Nikki Brooks, an adoption counselor with Lutheran Social Services working in the Eau Claire office.

Lutheran Social Services doesn’t keep local statistics, but Brooks said the number of babies dropped off in a year has ranged from zero to four.

Statewide since 2001, 125 children have been adopted under the Safe Haven law.

But there still have been incidents of parents abandoning their newborn children. Since 2001, at least 16 infants have been abandoned by their parents, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Earlier this year state lawmakers introduced a bill that would extend the Safe Haven deadline to 30 days. Wisconsin’s three-day window for the Safe Haven law is the shortest in the nation; many states have a 30-day window.

The baby dropped off on Christmas Day 2007 at Luther Midelfort – now Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire – was born the day before. She came with a pair of pink pajamas, a pacifier and a handwritten letter from her mother.

The letter explained why the mother chose to give up her child and offered a brief overview of the mother’s medical history: She didn’t use drugs or alcohol during the pregnancy, but she did smoke.

The Heberts were familiar with the Safe Haven law. They knew despite what the letter said, there was a chance the child could suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or some other birth defect because of substance abuse.

Nothing in the law requires parents to leave medical information about themselves or the child they’re abandoning. In most instances, the parents don’t leave letters.

“We had our concerns because she had no (medical) history,” Joe said.

But the nurses told the Heberts they didn’t think anything was wrong with the infant. She didn’t appear sick or undernourished. And just the sight of the baby girl made the couple want to take her into their family.

“She was so darn cute,” Carol said. “She had her little pacifier, just sucking away.”

The next day the Heberts took the child home with them. They named her Nicole.

In other adoptions the biological parents transfer custody to the adoptive parents. No such arrangement occurs in a Safe Haven adoption.

That means a judge must involuntarily terminate the biological parents’ rights and bestow them on the adoptive parents. That process usually takes about a month, or sometimes up to eight weeks, Brooks said.

Parents rarely change their minds after giving up a child through the Safe Haven program, but that possibility weighed on the Heberts in the weeks after Nicole’s arrival. As the days passed, their worries eased.

“It got to be more and more that she’s staying with us,” Joe said, adding, “There’s always anxiety in adoption.”

The adoption became official in January 2007, when Judge Michael Schumacher granted the Heberts parental rights to Nicole.

Nicole Hebert is now 4 years old. She has blond hair and smiles often. She and her older sister, Paige, call each other “Sissy.” Nicole even resembles her parents.

“She looks like our other daughter: blond hair, blue eyes,” Joe said.

Carol added, “She came here and fit in well.”

Nicole loves gymnastics and says she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She starts 4-year-old kindergarten this fall.

Joe brags about how smart she is, saying, “She’s a very witty little girl.”

The Heberts share their story because they want others to know Safe Haven is an option for people not ready to be parents.

“I think (the law) protects the child,” Carol said. “If you don’t bring it up every once in a while, it gets pushed aside.”

Brooks agreed on the need to raise awareness of Safe Haven.

“It just seems there’s so many people who are not aware of it,” she said.

Joe also has been on the other end of adoption.

When Joe was 21, he and a girlfriend gave up a daughter through a traditional adoption.

Three years ago, shortly after the Heberts adopted Nicole, that daughter located Joe and the two were able to meet.

“She found me three years ago, and it’s been neat getting to know her,” Joe said.

The Heberts attended her wedding – and Joe became a grandpa when she gave birth to a girl.

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