A federal study has found that at least 22,000 babies are left in hospitals each year by parents unwilling or unable to care for them, indicating for the first time how widespread the nation’s “boarder baby” problem has become.
The study, commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services and forwarded to Congress, found that the babies were clustered in six major urban areas, with Cook County (Chicago), Ill., New York City and Washington, D.C., having the highest numbers.
Three-quarters of the boarder babies tested had been exposed to drugs and were black, the report found. Twelve percent were white and 8% Latino, the study found.
Researchers said their figures probably underestimated the extent of the problem. But using the 22,000 figure, the report estimated that caring for the boarder babies costs from $22 million to as much as $125 million annually.
“This is a big warning sign to us about how much more we need to do on behalf of these families,” said Ann Rosewater, HHS deputy assistant secretary for children and families. “Any number of babies born in these conditions or abandoned without a family raises serious questions.”
Other experts said the report underscored the desperate conditions of many inner city families and the ultimate cost to society posed by the children born to parents there.
“We don’t have drug treatment on demand, we have not done much to lift young families out of poverty, and we’re now paying for it in the form of thousands of kids who are going to end up in the child welfare system because they’re going to be abandoned by moms who can’t take care of them,” said David Lieberman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.
On average, the boarder babies were moved into the child welfare system about five days after they were ready to leave the hospital. But some remained much longer.
The report, which counted children less than a year old, divided the babies into two categories--"boarder babies” and “abandoned babies.”
Boarder babies were defined as those medically ready to leave the hospital but who became “boarders” because they were abandoned or because their parents were deemed by child welfare officials as being unable to care for them.
Abandoned babies were not technically “boarders” because they still needed to be hospitalized for medical reasons. But they were considered unlikely to go home to their biological parents, for the same reasons as boarder babies, even after they became healthy enough to leave the hospital.
The study surveyed hospitals with newborn facilities in 101 counties across the nation. It found nearly 10,000 boarder babies and 12,000 abandoned babies in 1991. Experts said the numbers have probably not changed since then.
About half of the boarder babies and three-quarters of the abandoned babies were born prematurely. While testing for HIV was not common in the hospitals, among drug-exposed babies who were tested, from 6% to 8% tested positive for the virus.
The study, which counted boarder babies on a given day and then extrapolated those figures for an annual number, found 27% of the infants were in New York City hospitals, 13% were in Cook County hospitals and 11% were in District of Columbia hospitals.