Volunteer group tries to ease plight of abandoned babies

According to Dorot, about three women leave her hospital each year without being discharged and without their babies.

baby good 88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
baby good 88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
A young woman who had just given birth the day before told nurses at Tel Aviv's Lis Maternity Hospital she wanted to go out to the lobby and have a coffee. The nurses were keeping a watchful, slightly suspicious eye on the mother; they knew little about her, as she had not provided a phone number or address upon admission. But they couldn't stop her from visiting the lobby. That was the last anyone saw of her. The woman simply took off, leaving her newborn girl asleep in the maternity ward - nameless, motherless and totally alone in the world. This type of story is not unique to the Lis Hospital. It happens in most hospitals around the country at least three times a year. "That's usually how they leave," said Zipi Dorot, chief social worker at Lis. "They say they want to go for a coffee or to a store to buy something. Sometimes they even say they want to go and visit their baby [in the neonatal unit], but then they don't come back." The only people who provide warmth and affection for the days-old and weeks-old babies are volunteers who come to the hospitals. They rub their backs and sing to them. Abandoned babies fall under the responsibility of the Health Ministry while hospitalized, and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry upon their discharge. But while neither ministry keeps official tallies of babies who are abandoned, ministry officials insist the number is very low and has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. According to Dorot, about three women leave her hospital each year without being discharged and without their babies. "Usually a story needs big numbers to make a big impression," said the veteran social worker. "But in this story, one is too many." The women are usually homeless, drug addicts, new to the country, and in their 20s or 30s. "People would be surprised to hear this," Dorot said, referring to the mothers' ages. "They expect them to be teenagers, but more often than not, they aren't." When a patient goes AWOL at Lis, the hospital first tries to locate the woman using the phone number and address provided upon admission; if unsuccessful, Lis then informs the municipality - but not the police - of the disappearance. "We have no duty to call the police," said Dorot. "We would rather connect with and help the new mother get well [and eventually reunite with her child]. The women, when they come to give birth and admit to using drugs, are afraid we will call the police, but we don't." Dorot repeatedly stressed to The Jerusalem Post that abandonment in hospitals was rare, and attributed the infrequency to hospitals' early identification of and intervention with at-risk mothers. If women admit to abusing drugs upon their admission or test positive for drug use, the social workers then encourage and help the women to attend substance abuse programs and develop interim parenting arrangements. But a mother's drug use and homelessness isn't the only reason babies are abandoned in the hospital. Parents - especially those who expect to deliver a healthy infant but don't - sometimes panic and abandon their infants. They feel unprepared and unable to manage the unexpected illness, congenital deformity or missing limb. "In these cases," explains Dorot, "we work hard with the parents to educate them about their baby's diagnosis or condition and give them time to accept it. We say you don't have to decide today about your plans for your child, but can take some time to think about what is best to do. "Usually when given time to accept their child's condition and medical resources, many parents end up taking their babies home with them." Despite the efficacy of such services in curbing the number of abandoned babies, there are currently 300 babies in hospitals around the country whose parents, because they live too far from the hospital or have too many other children at home to care for, are not actively involved with their hospitalized infants. Some babies have also been abused. No one is more familiar with the plight of these 300 babies than Sivan Egbar-Apelboim, one of the two social workers with Hibuk Rishon, or First Hug - a nonprofit, privately funded organization that assigns volunteers to cradle, sing, read and play with these babies until they are discharged. "For us, it's not important to know why the babies are alone in the hospitals," said Egbar-Apelboim. "It's just important to know that they are alone. "Attention and touch are as vital as food for an infant in the first year," she explained. "If nobody held them, they wouldn't develop as well. The nurses are phenomenal and dedicated, but with all their other responsibilities, they don't have the time to sit and play with the babies." First Hug began with one volunteer - the group's founder, Tamar Shlezinger - and one baby in Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital. In four years, it has mushroomed to include 150 active volunteers (3,000 are currently on a waiting list) visiting babies in 20 hospitals around the country. While demand for First Hug is currently concentrated in the country's center, Beersheba and Petah Tikva, Egbar-Apelboim is optimistic that First Hug will eventually reach all babies in need of their volunteers. Nadia Landau has been a First Hug volunteer since the program's inception and also hopes more hospitals reach out to the volunteers. "These babies, [especially] drug-addicted [women's] babies, go through hell and need us," said Landau. "They scream as if they have no skin. Their bodies are tense and they feel more like a log and less like a human baby. But slowly they learn to absorb my hug and relax. "I know I'm not going to change these babies' lives," she continued, "but I can give them a better welcome into this world."