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The Safe Haven Law went into effect 20 years ago.

Since then more than 4,000 children whose parents couldn’t care for them were given a special status: Safe to go home with a forever family.

But as the law ages and a new generation is of childbearing age, there is a desperate push to get the word out to save the babies of the future.

Riley Dunnett is Safe Haven Baby #64.

Ten years later, she can’t recall the day, but Cheryl Dunnett can.

“We had two older girls that were probably about three at the time and we were looking to expand our family,” she said. “Riley we heard (about) on Wednesday and we had her in our arms on Friday evening.”

Riley Dunnett’s biological mother walked up to a Chicago hospital, saw the Safe Haven sign and made a brave choice.

“My mom chose to use the Safe Haven Law and brought me to a hospital and then I got to a family,” she said.

Today, Riley Dunnett keeps a copy of that Safe Haven sign in her room.

“It just makes me remember how it’s special and it makes me feel happy,” she said.

Before Riley Dunnett’s first day home, Cheryl Dunnett and her husband Shawn had no grasp of what the Safe Haven Law was or what a blessing it would be for them.

“It was such an unexpected experience,” Shawn Dunnett said. “It literally came out of nowhere.”
“I had not heard of it at all and I often heard of abandoned babies on the news and in trash cans and in places that just makes my heartache,” Cheryl Dunnett said.

Dawn Geras is the founder and president of Save Abandoned Babies Foundation.

“A newborn baby, the youngest most vulnerable of all being, discarded like trash… not acceptable,” she said.

It was a story of a baby left to die in a garbage can that prompted Geras to form the organization. Then she got to work on a law to protect those babies

“The law is really quite simple. It says that a parent can hand over an unharmed baby 30 days old or younger to anybody at a hospital, police or fire station,” she said. “They can walk away with no questions asked. They remain anonymous. They can go on with their life knowing they’ve taken responsible, loving action. And that baby will be adopted and placed into a forever family.”

After working tirelessly to get the legislation passed in 2001, Geras is celebrating. 143 babies have been saved in Illinois. But she adds sobering stats.

“There’s been 87 babies that were illegally abandoned. 44 of those babies, almost four dozen, are dead,” she said. “I think that’s because people don’t know that the law does exist. If they knew the law was there, why would they throw a baby in a garbage can?”

Enter Riley Dunnett. WGN first profiled her story five years ago.

As she’s grown, so have her cries to protect other kids.

“I would tell them there is something called the Safe Haven Law and if you want to give your baby to an amazing family then you can use the Safe Haven Law,” she said.

“Initially I thought about Reily‘s privacy, and then pretty quickly after that I realized that she was saved by the law,” Cheryl Dunnett said. “We needed to step in and share our story, share her story. She needed to be like one of those people who just helps people understand.”

Riley Dunnett wrote a letter she read aloud at an education dinner for Save Abandoned Babies Foundation.

“Because of you, I was warm, surrounded by love and fed,” the letter reads. “Because of you, I have a wonderful forever family. Because of you, I have grown strong.”

Strong is an understatement. She has hundreds of ribbons and medals and trophies and ribbons for triathlons and swimming to prove it. 

She dives into life with the vigor of someone who is grateful. And hopeful.

“There’s so many families that have used that law and there’s many more to come,” she said.

Education is the key. But recent illegally abandoned babies are a sign, there is more work to be done. Some are concerned about privacy or prosecution when dropping off a baby.

“Every parent that has relinquished a baby under the law has been anonymous,” Geras said. “There is no fear of prosecution. They can walk away. They don’t have to answer any questions.”

But they do have the answer they need knowing child and their newfound parents are grateful.

“It was like hitting the jackpot,” Shawn Dunnett said.

“I can’t even put it into words, the feeling is just overwhelming,” Cheryl Dunnett said. “And thank you, thank you for choosing life, for your daughter. Thank you for using the Safe Haven Law to protect her and thank God she came to us.”

Because of you I have a bright future. Because of you I have a name Riley Mae Dunnett. 3650 days that I have been alive because of you.

There is a new push to educate high schoolers about the Safe Haven Law. And the Dunnett Family and Geras urge everyone to share this story. If you tell someone about Safe Haven, you could save a life.

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