Shivering and frightened, tears streaming down their faces, 19-year-old Karin and her boyfriend, David, walked with their newborn baby in their arms through a quiet suburb of Hamburg, in northern Germany. The pair stopped as they approached a nondescript brown brick building bearing the sign "Babyklappe".
Karin then kissed the baby girl and opened the metal flap protruding from the building. She gently lowered the baby inside and closed the door behind her. Barely able to control their sobs, Karin and David turned and hurried back into the night.
"At the time I felt that I just had to do it," says Karin of the painful decision she and her boyfriend made to leave their baby in this manner. "I could see no other way. But my heart broke and I'll never, ever forget the sound of the box closing. I felt like my world had ended and that nothing had meaning anymore."
The Babyklappe (or "baby flap") they left their child in is a creation of SterniPark, a German organization committed to the care of mothers and children. Boxes like this are just one of the ways in which the organization is trying to tackle the growing problem of babies being abandoned on the streets of Germany by desperate mothers with nowhere to turn.
These baby boxes consist of a metal flap that is discreetly located on the outside wall of a building. When the flap is pulled back, a window is revealed and behind that is a cot, which sits in a larger nursery. When a baby is placed in the cot, social workers are notified via a surveillance camera and an alarm. The baby is then tended to immediately.
It's estimated that up to 40 babies are abandoned every year in Germany. Before the baby boxes were introduced, more than half this number were found dead. Now, as well as being saved and cared for, more than 60 per cent of babies left in the baby boxes are eventually reunited with their mothers.
For Karin, the baby box was a godsend. "When I learnt that I was pregnant, I didn't know what to do," she recalls. "On the one hand, I was happy but I was also very scared that I might be left on my own - that my boyfriend would leave me. When I first found out I was pregnant, we spoke about out future and how to carry on with out lives. But we both felt that we wouldn't be able to care for a baby and we decided we had to do something.
"We had heard about the baby 'post box' and decided to use it because we knew this way our baby would be cared for. We wanted to make sure she had a good start in life - with parents who could give her what she needed," Karin continues. "We loved her so much but were so frightened we couldn't afford to keep her the way babies should be kept: warm, well fed and entertained."
But Karin and David weren't prepared for the pain and anguish they would experience after they left their little girl that cold night.
"We went home, but neither of us could stop crying," says Karin. "We kept thinking, 'What have we done?' My boyfriend knew I felt terrible about the decision, and I could tell that he was very badly shaken too.
"We had already spent 10 days with our child, and putting her in the box was so hard for both of us. We were distraught and very confused. My soul was aching - I can't describe it any other way. It seemed to me like the world had turned upside down and broken into tiny little bits."
The baby box idea came into its own after the body of a newborn baby was discovered in a rubbish dumpster on the outskirts of Hamburg in December 1999. The baby had died from exposure to sub-zero temperatures. SterniPark insisted that the death was avoidable. Its staff felt incensed that one of the most prosperous cities in Germany could allow babies to freeze to death because their mothers could not take care of them.
The organization was also becoming alarmed by information about dozens of vulnerable mothers who were compelled to give birth in public toilets and basements each year - particularly when Germany has one of the world's most envied healthcare systems.
Determined to find a viable solution, SterniPark not only devised the Babyklappe idea, it also provided "safe houses" where troubled mothers could give birth anonymously.
Heidi Rosenfeld, SterniPark's director, glows with pride as she recounts the statistics since the baby boxes were first introduced. "In the past three years, out of the 70 women and babies helped by us, 60 per cent [of the mothers] decided to keep their babies, 20 per cent released their children for open adoption, and another 20 per cent opted for an anonymous adoption.
"All but two or three of the women have left a letter and photo for their children with a solicitor to pass on when the child turns 16," she adds. "We are proud to have been able to help these women and their babies in a non-bureaucratic way, and since 1999, more than 50 baby boxes in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been installed with our support."
The support that the organization offers varies according to each individual situation. When a mother leaves her baby in a Babyklappe, she will receive this message: "Dear mother, there are situations when everybody needs help. You have given your child into our care and we know it was no easy decision for you. We know that, and we guarantee your anonymity and discretion.
"After your child has been seen by a doctor, it will have eight weeks with a care family and will be in loving hands. Everything will be handled with the utmost confidentiality.
"And how are you? We can and want to help you. We are available whenever you want to talk. No questions, no charges, no police.
"Maybe it's possible you need follow-up medical care? Our midwives are available at all times and work across the country together with doctors in different hospitals. You won't be asked for your name. You won't receive any financial charges from us or the doctor.
"Time can't heal all wounds but it can help. In the next eight weeks, the possibility is there for you to be reunited with your child. You can also live with us, alone or with your child, free of charge and anonymously. We're here for you, and if you want to, together we can come to a solution. Our best wishes for you, take care and be strong."
For one mother, the baby box was a godsend. "I knew this way our baby would be cared for."
Despite reservations about keeping their baby, Karin and David quickly found that they could not cope with having left her in the box. "When my boyfriend saw how shattered I was, he said he would try to find the phone number for the baby box operators to get our baby back," says Karin. "I thought they would never give us our baby back, and that we had to be the worst parents in the world for even thinking about giving her up."
But the directors of SterniPark had foreseen this type of outcome. They had never designed the boxes as a point of no return. Instead, they were willing to reunite the baby with its natural parents after giving those parents counseling, advice and loving support.
"David's calls worked and we were reunited with our baby," Karin remembers with joy. "No-one judged us. Instead we were offered help and support. It was so wonderful to hold her in my arms, I started crying again - not because I felt lost, but because I had found the thing that made my life complete. Still, I will never forget the sound of the baby box. It will stay with me all my life."
At a SterniPark kindergarten in leafy Wilhemsburg, a residential area in East Hamburg, Ulrike Kaatze, the kindergarten's director, is surrounded by toddlers from "normal" families who are busy trying to get their shoes back on after a play break.
Attached to Ulrike's office is a small, spotlessly clean room that offers hope for babies less lucky. Inside is a cot and a radiator, which heats the room to a cosy 37*C. This is the scene on the other side of a baby box. "It needs to be hot," says Ulrike. "Newborns feel the cold terribly and it can be fatal."
As she talks, Ulrike rearranges the teddy bears that are in the cot where the "posted" babies arrive. "This was Hamburg's second baby box," she explains. "I remember very clearly the first time I got the call to say a baby had been left. A colleague rang me on my mobile phone; she was very excited, saying 'Hurry! We've got a baby!' I jumped in a taxi straightaway. During the 20-minute drive, I couldn't stop thinking about the baby. 'Who was it? Who had left it there? Was it OK?'
"When I arrived, the baby was asleep in my colleague's arms. At first we thought it was a little boy because it was dressed entirely in blue, but when we unwrapped it we discovered it was a little girl. She was nice and warm, and her life signs appeared to be strong. We took her life signs appeared to be strong. We took her to the local hospital for a check-up and then got on the phone to arrange a care home for her. I still think about her. I heard she was reunited with her mother and I often wonder how they are both doing."
Reaching to adjust a mobile hanging above the cot, she says, "People are very supportive of what we do. We get calls, quite out of the blue, from people who want to help out or volunteer to care for the babies. Care families say the experience is great and they often keep in contact with the child they minded, swapping photos and sending cards. Some even become part of the child's extended family.
"There have been a couple of cases where a baby has been reunited with its birth mother and she will ask a member of the care family to be a godparent. The connections between all parties - including children, mums and care parents - last a long time and are another part of the support that SterniPark can offer women in difficult circumstances."
Located about 10km outside Flensburg, the closest German village to the Danish border, is SterniPark's home for mothers and children. The large yellow farmhouse has been refurbished and contains several comfortable rooms, two offices and a big kitchen. The neighbouring barns have also been converted into a series of small private apartments for mothers and their babies.
Sitting inside one of the bright, sunny rooms is Sandra. The 25-year-old looks like a natural at motherhood. Her nine-month-old son, Leon, with his black shiny curls bouncing around his ears, is busy staring at her and pulling at her sleeve in an effort to get her attention. She coos at him and pushes some of his curls back from his face. Then she takes a deep breath and says in a steady voice, "I was a prostitute for four years. Leon was born because I got pregnant by a customer."
"We help women from every part of society," says a spokesperson for the baby box scheme
Sandra's dark brown eyes look uneasy, but she holds her nerve and continues. "I found out I was pregnant when I was 24. This is the first time I've told anyone about this, but I have survived and I feel strong. I was beaten and kept as a virtual prisoner by my pimp. I'd have to sleep with maybe five men a day."
Things turned increasingly sour for Sandra when she fell pregnant. "[My pimp] threatened to kill me, then he threatened to kill my baby," she remembers. "he made me keep working, but as my belly grew, the number of customers dropped and I got beaten for that too. My life was at a dead end.
"I knew I had to get away. I was friendless and completely alone. But I had no choice - I had to do something to save my baby and save myself. I looked up Babyklappe in the phone book and found the number for SterniPark. At first I thought I would be using the baby box, but when I got talking, I realized they could help in other ways, offering me the chance of a 'no questions asked' birth."
Many of the desperate women who use the baby box have given birth in appalling situations in an attempt to hide what has happened. To ensure they don't go without necessary attention - be that medical, emotional or psychological - SterniPark introduced the "anonymous birth" initiative to cater for their needs.
"I managed to get away just long enough to give birth anonymously in a hospital," says Sandra. "That in itself was a huge relief. I had no idea where I would deliver, but SterniPark arranged it all and promised that I would be safe. I can't say I felt anything else but fear during the nine months I was pregnant - fear for myself, fear for my baby. I never knew when I was going to be beaten, and I was so afraid that Leon would be born dead."
After his birth, Leon was placed with a care family before Sandra had recovered sufficiently to care for him.
"I'm still in contact with the care family - we've become friends," she says. "I value our friendship very, very much. I really needed to their help and the space to think about what I would do next. After Leon was born, I could barely think straight, and I couldn't get away from the pimp immediately.
"It was a desperate, frightening time," she continues. "But at least I knew that Leon was safe and being cared for. You can't imagine what that meant to me. Even if my life ended or I never escaped, Leon was with people who would love him and take care of him. I had been calling SterniPark regularly to find out how Leon was doing, and the support I got, even over the phone, gave me so much strength. They made me feel human, a feeling I'd never really had before."
Sandra's experience, although difficult, not only helped her escape prostitution, it reunited her with her mother, whom she hadn't seen in five years. Somehow, Sandra found the courage to contact her mother and share her harrowing story.
"I was completely honest with her," Sandra says of the first phone call she made to her mother. I had no idea how she would react, but she took it well. She said, 'What has happened in the past is in the past and what's now is now.' That meant a lot to me. She never made me feel that Leon was unwanted. And my bond with her has grown stronger.
"Next month, I'll be living with my mum until I get my own apartment. Hopefully, that will be near my mum so she can help out with Leon while I work. I have a new life now and I intend to make the most of it. I finally feel free to live and be happy."
But despite success stories like Sanda's, not everyone sees the benefits of the system. A number of conservative politicians and doctors have dismissed the controversial scheme, claiming that the baby boxes are the ultimate symbol of a throwaway society.
"there should be an immediate stop to the practice," says adoption specialist Professor Christine Swientek from the University of Hannover in Germany. "It is not just newborn babies that are being dumped. In one case, a baby that had been stabbed was dumped at the Waldfrieden Clinic in Berlin-Zehlendorf by a parent who did not want to have to face police questions and possible charges.
"It allows mothers to give up their babies too easily or encourages an irresponsible attitude to having children. We are seeing babies that are two months, four months and even six months that are being added in. These are not the actions of a desperate mother who cannot face revealing she has a child. This is simply people who want to dump annoying children without any consequences."
But supporters believe that although there will always be people who will abuse the system, such cases should not be allowed to detract from the genuine need of women who face impossible circumstances.
SterniPark fundraiser Hilia Marija Hoepker says, "It's not just drug addicts or prostitutes who find themselves with pregnancies they can't cope with. SterniPark helps women from every part of society, from the 16year-old Muslim girl terrified of her family's reaction to the manager's wife whose husband said he'll leave her is she has another child.
"The question is about human rights: the right to dignity, privacy and to live free from fear. Every woman and every child has the right to protection and that's what we do."
For the staff at SterniPark, Sandra is testimony to the tremendous good the organization can achieve for mothers and babies.
"I was in the worst situation," she says. "I experienced nothing but fear the whole time I was pregnant. Leon was going to be born into a life he didn't deserve, but SterniPark gave me hope and offered Leon the chance of a loving, meaningful life.
"When I look at Leon, and now that he is starting to talk and say 'Mama', the feelings of joy are indescribable. I'm so proud of him and I'm even proud of myself for once. I've been able to make the right decision for both of us. I'd even go so far as recommending motherhood. It's the best thing ever."
This article appeared in a 2003 edition of marie claire.
If you are concerned about yourself or about someone you know, contact PANDA’s National Perinatal Depression Helpline 1300 726 306, see your GP or Maternal Health Nurse.