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In our opinion: Enhancing safe haven support a proper response to Pleasant Grove tragedy

Published: Thursday, April 17 2014 8:54 p.m. MDT

Pleasant Grove Police investigate the scene where seven infant bodies were discovered and packaged in separate containers at a home in Pleasant Grove Sunday, April 13, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Utahns have every reason to be stunned at the news out of Pleasant Grove that a 39-year-old mother of three apparently admitted killing six children she gave birth to, then storing their bodies, along with the body of a seventh child that was stillborn, in her garage.

These are the types of crimes that raise more questions than can be answered. As reported in a front-page story by Deseret News reporter Marjorie Cortez, studies show about 15 percent of homicides in the United States each year involve parents killing their own children. And while the reasons may be many and varied, the case involving Utah’s Megan Huntsman is unique in many ways and hauntingly baffling.

Health experts speculate there may have been no way to detect what Huntsman was doing or to prevent it. People closest to her apparently were unaware she even had been pregnant.

However, Utah does have an ongoing effort underway to save as many babies as possible who might otherwise be abandoned, and that deserves much more support than it is getting.

This effort revolves around a so-called “safe haven law,” passed by the Legislature in 2001. It allows troubled mothers to safely turn their newborns over to any hospital with no questions asked. The idea is to keep a desperate mother from simply abandoning a child in a dumpster, as has been done, or to otherwise end a child’s life.

Typically, the person targeted by this law is a young, unwed mother who has kept her pregnancy a secret and is ashamed of the child. Researchers have uncovered several other possible motives for such crimes, ranging from revenge to mental illness, but no one program could cover all these contingencies. The state’s Safe Haven Project, however, can have a significant impact on many young mothers and infant children who find themselves in a difficult situation.

Since the law’s passage, only 12 babies have been relinquished under the law, state officials said. But many more troubled mothers have received help that kept them from harming their offspring.

Julia Robertson, the program risk line coordinator of the Utah newborn safe haven project, told us the state’s first priority is to save the child and to foster a good familial future, often through adoption. The project also aims to make a wide range of women aware of the law and the services available, and it lets them know about the state’s hotline, 1-866-458-0058.

That effort involves presentations in public schools, beginning in eighth grade health classes, videos on Youtube and other social media, and ads on mass transit, among other things.

The problem is the project has only $25,000 to work with each year. That doesn’t go far.

Society may never be able to stop the rare and baffling incidents involving mothers who carry multiple babies to term and then destroy them. But it can do a lot to alleviate the despair of young mothers who see no way out of a difficult situation. If nothing else, the recent case ought to raise awareness of the need to do more in this regard.

Utah should allocate more resources toward this effort, reinforcing the honored notion that nothing is as precious as a child.

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