Another unwanted baby — until community responds

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Another baby abandoned, unwanted, and immediately a chorus of want responds. The chorus reassures, even as distress over the abandonment deepens.

And I find myself wondering again about Baby Grace, the infant left swaddled in blankets in a car seat by a rural Stearns County road a little more than two years ago.

In the cold of a January morning this year, a Grand Forks firefighter shoveling snow outside his station heard a man’s muffled voice. In the pre-dawn darkness, the firefighter could barely make out a figure standing by an electrical transformer.

He finished shoveling, and within a minute or two he walked to the transformer, where he found a cardboard box. He heard scratching sounds from inside the box.

Kittens?

But it was a baby, a baby girl, just hours old and wrapped in a still-moist towel.

Temperature was 15 degrees
It happened Saturday. The temperature that morning was 15 degrees, the windchill below zero. Firefighters brought the baby inside. They warmed towels in a dryer. Police officers and ambulance attendants arrived. An investigation began, and the great wondering: What could cause a mother, a father — anyone — to do such a thing?

Soon the baby’s world grew beyond the firehouse to the hospital, where doctors pronounced her nearly full-term and healthy, and farther still: Almost as soon as the local newspaper reported the discovery on its website, people began calling, offering to take the baby — pleading for her.

“I want to adopt this baby,” a woman from Lake Park, Minn., more than 100 miles away, told the Grand Forks Herald. A woman in Moorhead, Minn., e-mailed that her daughter would so love a little sister.

A couple in Crookston, Minn., e-mailed about “missing the part of parenting involved with having the cries of a baby in the house and the dependence of the innocent.”

State has safe-haven law
Why the fire hall? Personnel at most fire stations include people trained as emergency medical technicians, but North Dakota, like all the other states, has a safe-haven law allowing people to leave a baby at a hospital without fear of prosecution. It’s a far better alternative than a desperate, fearful abandonment in a deserted apartment, a trash-strewn alley — or beside a lightly traveled country road.

Minnesota’s safe-haven law allows a mother to leave a baby within 72 hours of its birth at any hospital in the state, no questions or legal consequences. Usually within a day or two, social-service agencies take custody of the babies and start the process of placing them in foster care, a first step toward adoption.

That happened in February last year, when a healthy 3-day-old baby was dropped off at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, and just last month, when a newborn infant was left at Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls, Minn.

Baby Grace was older, but less than 2 weeks, when someone left her by a gravel road near St. Augusta, Minn., in late November 2006.

Whoever left her was taking a greater chance, and it was lucky for the baby that Bob Klaverkamp was early getting home that day to his Stearns County dairy farm. It was still twilight when he reached the intersection a half mile from home, and he saw something in the brush.

Dispatched later that day by the Star Tribune, I met Klaverkamp at the spot of his discovery.

“I got out of the truck to check it out,” he said, glancing to where he had found a baby’s car seat wedged against the base of an oak tree and covered by a pink blanket. A small duffel lay nearby containing a full bottle of formula and clean diapers.

“Then I heard a whimper,” Klaverkamp said. “I opened the blanket, and there was a baby inside.”

He called 911 on his cell phone, then gathered the baby in his arms and took her into his truck, toasty warm against the 40-degree chill outside.

‘I want to keep her’
“She was holding my finger, a very sweet, very nice little baby. I talked to her while I waited for the ambulance to come. ‘How are you doing? Are you OK? Yes, you’re OK, a good little baby.’

“I told the 911 operator, ‘I want to keep her.’ “

So did a stream of callers to the sheriff’s office, where adoring secretaries named the baby Grace, social-services agencies took charge of her — and tried to explain the legal intricacies of custody and adoption in such situations — and deputies started an investigation.

In the 26 months since, they have tracked many leads, but have been unable to identify the baby or her parents. Grace was found not far from Interstate-94, and the parents could have been from anywhere.

The little girl is 2 now. Bruce Bechtold, chief sheriff’s deputy for Stearns County, said Tuesday that she has a new name and still lives in the area.

“She’s doing well,” he said. “I’ve seen her. One lucky family has her.”

May it be so for the babies “delivered” last year to St. Paul and Fergus Falls, and for the little girl left last weekend in a cardboard box on an electrical transformer at a fire station in Grand Forks.

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