‘Nobody even knew they existed’: Advocate for abandoned babies continues campaign for new law

Newmarket’s Abuse Hurts CEO Ellen Campbell believes Safe Haven-type legislation will help end the travesty of newborns being left to die

On a beautiful sun-filled summer day, the bodies of two newborn babies were laid to rest in a single, white casket surrounded by more love and respect than they ever saw in their short lives.

The funeral service of Pax and Justice was moving and brought tears to everyone’s eyes.

As she stood next to the tiny casket adorned with white flowers and purple and white teddy bears at Elgin Mills Cemetery in Richmond Hill last Wednesday, Ellen Campbell couldn’t contain her emotions and anger as she stated through tears that funerals like this shouldn’t need to happen.  

After Campbell spoke, tranquil music played as OPP Staff Sgt. Shelley Tarnowski picked up the seemingly weightless casket in her arms and walked out of the room with a full colour guard behind her.

The casket was placed at the Huggum’s Hope Memorial plot — the two babies the latest in a line of souls to be buried there. Their two names will be added to the 11 names now on the monument.

In 2007, after hearing stories about abandoned babies being found in unmarked graves in Ontario, Campbell, who is the founder and CEO of Newmarket-based Abuse Hurts, decided she had to do something for them because no one should buried without a name and a proper funeral service.

“They go into an unmarked grave; nobody even knew they existed,” she said.

She contacted Ontario’s chief coroner, who agreed to release the bodies of abandoned babies, and Elgin Mills Cemetery agreed to donate nine plots, which can accommodate 45 babies.

The first baby Campbell buried was a newborn who had been left in the woods in Timmins. Over the years, Campbell has buried babies found in dumpsters and a suitcase.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Campbell feels a kinship with these babies, calling their abandonment “the earliest stage of abuse outside of the womb.”

In Canada, abandoning a live baby is a Criminal Code offence. The law does allow a parent to leave their child legally at a hospital emergency room but the act isn’t anonymous and an investigation will follow.

People who abandon their children often do it because they are scared of being identified or they have mental health issues or are in crisis. As a result, many newborns are abandoned and left to die each year in Ontario.

“There’s two or three newborns a year, I’m told, that are thrown out just in Ontario and those are the ones that are found. So who knows how many we don’t find,” Campbell said.

The United States and several European nations have laws in place that allow parents to anonymously leave their child in a safe place but no such legislation exists in Canada.

Campbell is trying to change that. She said that because of the rules in place in the States, she doesn’t hear many stories anymore of unrescued babies.

She has spent the last 12 years fighting to have legislation in place that allows a parent to leave their newborns without the fear of investigation or charges of abandonment and without having to identify themselves.

She said that the current policies are vague and it’s not just parents who don’t know the law, but police and hospital staff as well.

She feels that if proper legislation were in place and policy made clear to the public and medical and police agencies, no baby would have to die as a result of being abandoned.

“It’s very frustrating. I thought this would be a slam dunk because it is legal.”

More than 2,000 babies have already been saved in the United States in the last 10 years because of Safe Haven legislation, and many other countries around the world have adopted similar legislation to help save newborns from untimely demise.

Campbell plans to keep fighting for proper legislation and policy and she will continue to hold funerals for these little newborns, making sure that they are named and laid to rest lovingly, but hoping that each one will be the last.