The Abandoned Infant Protection Act states that any parent may leave a newborn baby, no older than 30 days, in the care of an appropriate facility such as a hospital or a police station without fear of criminal liability. Out of fear or shame or other extenuating circumstances, some mothers abandon their baby only hours after birth.
At most of the Guthrie hospitals in Pennsylvania and New York, a parent may give a baby to any staff member or place the child in a crib in the Safe Haven designated area. The “Safe Haven law” gives parents an option that is both safe for their child and confidential.
When Francis Dunbar was born in 1946 at Tioga General Hospital in Waverly, NY, the Safe Haven law had not been enacted. Nevertheless, his young mother left him there 10 days after his birth. He became a ward of the county and was placed in a foster home.
Francis says he was never physically abused at the foster home, but there was “no love” and he often felt overlooked and forgotten. His foster parents never celebrated his birthday, nor did he have anything of his own. When Francis was about 6 years old, Dr. Tracy Gillette of Owego, a physician who made his rounds in the Tioga County, NY area, began to make regular visits to Francis’s foster home in Lounsberry.
When Dr. Gillette met Francis, he saw something that his foster parents did not and decided to take Francis with him while he made his rounds. One stop was the Western Auto shop on North Avenue, in downtown Owego, NY. Dr. Gillette would stop in the store and visit with the owner, Mr. Percy Dunbar.
Dr. Gillette knew that Mr. Dunbar and his wife, Kathryn Mandeville, could not have children of their own. Week after week for almost a year, Dr. Gillette would stop, pickup young Francis, and take him around the county, always stopping at the Dunbar’s store. Then, one special day, Dr. Gillette came to the door of the foster home and told Francis to pack his things because he was leaving. “I ran up the stairs, grabbed my shirt, my pants and my shoes and on the way down I don’t think I touched a step. I didn’t care where I was going. I just knew it would be better.” And it was.
Dr. Gillette took Francis to the Dunbar’s shop and told him that Kathryn and Percy were to be his parents. Francis describes the next 20 years as “wonderful.” Percy and Kathryn—who gave up her position as a teacher at Owego Free Academy to care for Francis—gave him everything he ever dreamed of. More importantly, they taught him how to be a good person and they loved him unconditionally.
In the late 1960s, Percy was diagnosed with cancer. He spent many months in treatment at Robert Packer Hospital in Sayre, PA.
In the early 1970s, Kathryn suffered a massive stroke. She also spent many weeks in the care of Robert Packer Hospital. Francis recalls being asked to come to the hospital because his mother would only communicate with him and no one else. They had a special bond.
Sadly, Kathryn eventually succumbed to her illness. Percy was so moved by the care that his wife had received from the hospital staff that he planned to make a gift to the hospital from his estate. Unfortunately, Percy’s condition worsened and he passed away within a year of Kathryn’s death. Francis was heart-broken but grateful for the time they had together. He was also determined to carry out his father’s wishes. In 1974, Francis made a gift in honor of his parents.
When members of Guthrie’s Resource Development Department learned of Francis Dunbar’s story, they commissioned a plaque to be designed. Francis was asked where he would like to have it displayed. Several options were considered. However, in the end, Francis fittingly chose the Safe Haven area of Robert Packer Hospital. On Tuesday, June 22, 2021, Robert Packer Hospital President Joseph Sawyer met Francis and his wife Sandy in the Emergency Department waiting area. After a warm greeting, Mr. Sawyer took the Dunbar’s to see the plaque.
Francis’s eyes filled with tears. When he was finally able to speak, he said, “This is perfect. It is exactly what my father wanted.” He added, “And this is how I was left as a baby. I was left at a hospital. I hope that if someone feels like they can’t care for their newborn baby, they will come here and they will see my parent’s plaque and they will know there is hope that their child might live a wonderful life too.”