Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Seeking to save the lives of unwanted babies whose lives would otherwise be engangered by abandonment, the Arcata and Humboldt Bay fire protection districts have sought and been granted designations as “safe surrender” sites.
Since 2001, California law has allowed parents of unwanted infants to safely surrender them up to 72 hours after birth, with hospital emergency rooms being designated as surrender sites.
Officials from the two fire districts have offered their stations as new sites and at the Jan. 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, a resolution approving the proposal was unanimously passed.
Chris Jelinek, the Humboldt Bay district’s chief, said safe surrender is an alternative to “abandonment in an unsafe way, whether it be a dumpster, the ocean, the bay, a forest – any unsafe way versus bringing their child either to a hospital or what we’re requesting here today.”
The board’s approval designates the Arcata Fire Protection District’s three stations – at Ninth Street and Janes Road in Arcata and Central Avenue in McKinleyville – as new safe surrender sites along with the Humboldt Bay district’s five stations.
Arcata fire chief Desmond Cowan told supervisors that “it’s hard to imagine someone who would not support this program” and credited Jelinek for spearheading it.
Asked about the potential frequency of newborn surrenders, Jelinek said it is an unknown, but local hospitals have fielded four safe surrenders since the state law went into effect. Fire station surrenders are expected to be infrequent.
“We anticipate it to be very low frequency – something that we might see once or twice within our careers, but we just don’t know,” said Jelinek. Los Angeles County has a population of almost seven million and is seeing between six and 20 surrenders per year at its fire stations, he continued.
The City of Novato has also designated fire stations as sites but has only seen one surrender at a station, he said.
“What we don’t know is, are the demographics of Humboldt County unique, do we have a greater need, a similar need or less – and really, time will tell,” said Jelinek.
The Arcata City Council had voted to encourage the Board of Supervisors to approve the new designations. Supervisor Mark Lovelace said that although people wish abandonment would not happen, “The reality is, it needs to be addressed.”
Some supervisors described newborn surrenders as tragic but Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said they’re actually a responsible course of action. “This avoids a tragedy,” he continued.
Jelenik said that if a parent wants to carry out a safe surrender and calls 911, fire district staff will be dispatched to the location of the call for the pickup.