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Baby abandoned at Grand Forks fire station most likely in care of social services, expert says

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - The baby girl wrapped in a towel inside a cardboard box and left early Saturday outside a Grand Forks fire station now likely is in the custody of Grand Forks County Social Services and maybe already in a foster family's home, social service experts said.

Nothing officially can be said about an individual case, said Tara Muhlhauser, director of the children and family services division of the state Department of Human Services.

But typically in such cases, a doctor can order an infant to be held as long as 96 hours in a hospital, for care and to sort things out.

In this case, because nothing is known about the baby's parents or circumstances, the county's social services department would take charge, getting a court order to take the child into custody.

On Saturday, after giving the baby some initial care, including oxygen and warm towels, firefighters turned her over to an ambulance crew that took her to Altru Health System within minutes of her being discovered about 7:35 a.m. outside the fire station.

It seemed the man who left her made sure he made enough noise to attract attention.

A nursing supervisor said Sunday the baby was in good condition but could not release any other information about her.

The doctor-ordered 96-hour hold period in the hospital would have ended today. No one in the hospital or social services can comment on the details of the case.

Safe haven

But Muhlhauser said county social services departments are the default legal custodians of abandoned babies. A state district judge signs an order and then social services' system officially gets involved, with its setup of foster families and a variety of services.

Child care services in North Dakota are administered by county social services departments and overseen and assisted by the state's network of regional human services agencies.

Only one baby has been left at a "safe haven" since the law was passed in North Dakota in 2001, Muhlhauser said.

The law, similar to safe haven laws in several other states, allows parents or "agents" to leave a child at a designated place without being prosecuted for child abandonment or negligence. In North Dakota, only hospitals are designated safe havens. A child 1 year old or younger can be left with authorities at a hospital, and the parent or agent is not required to give any information.

Some states also include as safe havens fire stations, which typically are manned 24 hours a day with people trained in emergency medical care.

The man who left the baby girl was perhaps familiar with safe haven rules in other states that include fire stations, Muhlhauser said.

Since Nebraska corrected its difficulties recently in dealing with a safe haven law that allowed parents to drop off even teenage children, North Dakota allows children as old as 1 year to be dropped off at safe havens, Muhlhauser said.

Minnesota allows babies only within a few days of birth to be dropped off at safe havens, and its law has been used extensively, Muhlhauser said.

Lt. Rahn Farder of the Grand Forks Police Department said several leads have come in about the baby but nothing that turned up any real information.

Because of the circumstances of the baby's abandonment, the man who apparently left her, and/or the baby's parents or other custodial adults could face charges.

Other cases

There have been several cases in recent years of babies and young children left at Altru Health System or other hospitals in the region, but the people leaving the children did not follow the procedures of the safe haven law, Muhlhauser said.

"There have been situations where children have been left at a hospital but a family member shows up 30 minutes later and says, 'This was really a mistake, and we really want this child in our family,'?" Muhlhauser said. "Technically, that would have been a safe haven case, but the process was not even used."

Other cases involve children abandoned, not according to safe haven laws, but in ways that social services quickly can care for the child. Typically, such cases are not made public.

In the one official safe haven case in the state, a father left his nearly 1-year-old child at a Fargo hospital. Through some means, the father's identity was known, and he was contacted, and he returned and followed through with the safe haven procedure, Muhlhauser said.

Although the local prosecutor initially announced plans to prosecute the father for abandoning his child, Muhlhauser called the prosecutor and told him the father was immune from prosecution because of the safe haven law.

What's next

Kate Kenna, director of Northeast Human Services in Grand Forks and Lake Region Human Services in Devils Lake, said the best case sought for such a baby is a foster family that is willing to adopt the child, too.

Although the county quickly becomes the custodian of such a child, terminating the parental rights takes longer, from six months to two years, depending on the circumstances, Muhlhauser said. No adoption can take place until the parental rights of the biological parents are terminated.

That could happen in this case as soon as six months or so.

Although many people in several states have indicated -- to the Herald and to social services officials -- interest in adopting this baby girl, social services will use its network of foster families and others licensed and ready for adoption in the state, Muhlhauser said.

And she emphasized there always is a need for more foster families.

"The good news for us is we have lots of people saying 'I would be willing to step up and provide care,'" Muhlhauser said. "We have lots of needs for foster parents. There are a lot of children like this child who could greatly benefit from a home in the community."

Anyone interested or with information about the baby left at the fire station Saturday can call Grand Forks County Social Services at (701) 787-8500 or the Grand Forks police at (701) 746-2500.