Secret safe place celebrates five years

By Lance Coleman
Blount Today - senior reporter

When A Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee supporters gather for the fifth anniversary gala "Celebration of Life", they’ll also be celebrating a forthcoming $25,000 state grant.

The Celebration of Life honoring A Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee will be at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Airport Hilton.

"That’s big, big deal that the state has finally, that they are getting behind us," said executive director Shannon McCloud. "That’s a big, big deal. The contracts have been signed and sent back to Nashville and we should get the money any time. State Rep. Doug Overbey, State Rep. Joe McCord and State Sen. Tim Burchett were instrumental in getting this, they got the ball rolling."

McCloud and co-founder Shawna McConnell spoke recently about the upcoming fifth anniversary celebration, the story of how the group began and why the organization works the mission it has.

McConnell, Lisa Yount and Overbey were the founders of the organization. The mandate when the organization formed was and still is to serve, educate and inform others about the safe haven law of Tennessee.

According to McConnell, the law allows for the anonymous surrender of an unharmed newborn baby up to three days old by its mother to a medical facility without fear of prosecution. "She can secretly take this baby to a hospital, birthing center, health department and walk-in clinic and give it to someone and walk away without giving information," McConnell said. "She is immune from prosecution if the baby is unharmed and taken to one of those facilities. You can’t just leave it in bathroom or on a door step. It has to be given to an employee."

McConnell said the idea for the group started in 2000 after she and Yount noticed news stories about babies being
abandoned and they read an article about a woman named Jody Brooks in the McCall’s magazine. "She was a journalist and went to her district attorney and said there has to be better option for these girls 14- and 15-years-old. There had to be something to do rather than finding dead babies they’ve abandoned," McConnell said of the McCall’s interview. "I read (Yount) the article and said, if a 26-year-old journalist from Mobile, Ala., can do this, we can do this."

According to McConnell, that was in May of 2000 and in October of that year a baby was found dead in a tool shed at a Townsend home.

"We started looking into this and then a baby was found in our backyard," McConnell said. "We were devastated this happened in our community."

McConnell said she called Sheriff James Berrong and met with him, Blount County District Attorney Mike Flynn and Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols to see how a similar program to the one instituted in Alabama could help people in Tennessee. "We started brainstorming as to how to get a program like this started," she said. "They said the first thing we would have to do is change the law. If a girl came in and abandoned a baby, she would be prosecuted."

McConnell said lawmakers had to change the law so there was such a thing as legal abandonment so that it fell within certain criteria. McCord, Overbey and then State Sen. Bill Clabough got the new law passed in July of 2001. "From there we decided to form a non-profit agency that would be the legs behind this law to get the word out," McConnell said. "We had to get the word out to the state that there is this law - don’t leave your baby to die. Take your baby to a safe place.

You can walk away and keep your secret and your baby is safe."

McConnell said they got the program up and running in Blount County. "We realized that this was a really big job to try to get this program off the ground state-wide," she said.

Because of a grant from the Presbyterian Women’s Council through New Providence Presbyterian Church, they hired Shannon two years ago.

The group members decided that going state-wide would be easier by working through the state Department of Education and going through different agencies rather than one community and county at a time. "We’re casting the net wider," McConnell said.

The group first duplicated their effort Blount County over into Knox County. "We knew if we tried county by county, we were never going to get the whole state," McCloud said. "We broadened our focus and are making contacts across the state to spread the word."

McCloud said there are people from counties all over the state agreeing to distribute information about the effort. "We’ve been able to engage people to do something in their communities," she said.

"We need champions for this cause in their communities," McConnell said. "That’s the key is having someone who is really passionate about this."

McCloud said a young lady in Anderson County is working to get the message out regarding the Safe Haven Law. She also has plans to meet with Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga in November to try to start a partnership. McCloud also wants to work with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville has been a big supporter of the effort. "East Tennessee Children’s Hospital has been wonderful," she said. "They’ve really helped us out."

Other plans include a state-wide mailing. "We’re going to do a big mailing to all the schools in the states and get posters in all the schools," McCloud said. "We’re also going to have a television commercial. That is going to be sent out across the state, hopefully by the first of the year."

The evening will include dinner, a silent auction, special music and guests and reflections of the past, present and future of the organization. Individual tickets are $50 and tables of 10 are $500. For information, call McCloud at 254-2208.

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