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An abandoned baby was found dead in Newcastle this week. It's time to take baby hatches seriously.

As residents on quiet, suburban Church Street in Newcastle woke on Tuesday morning – perhaps as they spent their time getting the kids ready for school, or making sure they had everything they needed for work – emergency services disturbed the peace.

Lights and sirens raced down the road.

The residents emerged, wiping their tired eyes as they wandered onto their street to await information on what all the commotion was about.

Never did they expect such tragic news.

Police are on the search for the mother of the newborn baby found dead in a Newcastle backyard. Post continues after video.

Video by 7News

NSW emergency services were called to an address on the street in the beachside suburb of Stockton just after 7am, where they were met with the body of an abandoned newborn baby.

At this stage, it’s unclear how or when the baby got there, or who the parents are.

A post-mortem examination will be conducted to determine the age, sex and cause of death, NSW Police said in a statement.

Detective Superintendent Brett Greentree said police have grave concerns for the mother, whom it’s believed gave birth “very recently” and may need medical assistance.

“It’s just really a heartbreaking situation. It’s very, very sad,” he told reporters in Newcastle.

“We’re hoping that between the investigations and the community we’ll be able to identify this female first and foremost and make sure she has medical treatment.”

Investigators don’t believe there is a connection between the baby’s identity and the person who owns the home where they baby was found.

“The occupant of that residence has just gone out to the backyard this morning and located the body of the newborn,” Det Supt Greentree said.

“That person is assisting us with our inquiries, as are the rest of the neighbours in the area who have been forthcoming.”

Sadly, this is not the only abandoned baby we have heard about in recent times. In March, a mother abandoned her newborn baby boy outside a Perth medical centre and earlier this month, a Western Australian mother was located and treated in hospital 24 hours after abandoning her newborn near a hospital in Geraldton.

While nothing is known of the Newcastle mother’s circumstances (and speculation and judgement are not at all helpful or appropriate), we must take seriously options that could prevent this happening again in the future.

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What is a baby hatch?

In many countries worldwide – particularly European nations but also including Japan, Pakistan, India, Canada and the United States – mothers can give up her baby to a ‘baby hatch’.

It’s usually a hole in the wall, often on the outside of a hospital, social centres or churches, where a mother can leave a baby. The hatch usually opens onto a soft bed and is heated or at least insulated. The weight of the baby’s body will trigger an alarm to alert staff or carers to collect the child.

baby hatch
The inside of a baby hatch in Germany. Image: Getty.
baby hatch
And the outside. Image: Getty.

Several states in the United States also have “safe haven” laws that allow a parent to hand over their child to specified authorities, like hospitals, fire stations and police departments, without the threat of prosecution.

Would 'baby hatches' stop these tragedies in Australia?

Baby abandonment is currently a criminal offence in Australia, with parents liable for prosecution. Baby hatches and safe haven laws would allow parents to leave their children without sanction.

One of the most common arguments against these measures is that it breaches the United Nations mandate that every child has a right to know their parents.

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Opponents argue that safe havens, hatches or anonymity measures have had little impact and fail to prevent child deaths. Advocates argue that these laws are effective even if they save only one life.

It is impossible to know how many babies are abandoned in Australia, because so often the goal is for the child to never be found.

A safe measure, where the child could be left somewhere safe and the mother did not have to fear identification or prosecution, would most likely not save all babies whose mothers leave them, but it would save some.

It is undoubtedly better for these children to be abandoned in a safe location than down a drain, buried in sand or left in a suburban backyard, as has happened in this country.

What are the options for mother's struggling in Australia and are they good enough?

Baby hatches and safe haven laws would be worthwhile safeguards for babies and the mothers who, for whatever reason, decide to give them up.

Tasmanian Senator Helen Polley has long called for safe haven laws to be introduced in Australia, as she believes desperate mothers in desperate circumstances need safer options.

“It’s about making sure that every avenue is open for vulnerable women,” she told the Herald Sun in 2015. “Isn’t it preferable that a baby is left in the safety of a hospital rather than abandoned at a bus stop?”

In Australia, women and their families who are facing challenges or have questions about pregnancy options can call the Department of Health's Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline (1800 882 436) to be transferred to qualified counsellors free of charge, who offer non-judgemental, confidential support.

But many of the women who abandon or kill their babies conceal or deny their pregnancies. Though so many go unidentified, these mothers are often young, financially struggling, socially isolated or dealing with mental health issues.

They are, as Senator Polley said, unlikely to walk into a government building and ask for help.

As University of Queensland Professor of Social Work Karen Healy wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2016, much better early identification of women at risk needs to occur.

"Because these vulnerable women are unlikely to use antenatal services, we need to make sure that other people who come into contact with them can help. This means ensuring that teachers and service providers in areas such as drug and alcohol services are skilled at identifying and supporting vulnerable women whom they suspect may be pregnant," she wrote.

These services must be easy to access, confidentially.

Baby hatches will ensure that children who are abandoned are left in a safe place and will get the care they need. It's not a complete solution, but it is a solution.

But we also need to give the mother's the care they need - long before, during and after their pregnancy - so that they can see an option other than abandoning babies in the first place.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue at 1300 22 4636.

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