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Neighbors rescue baby abandoned by mother in Wall

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 4:41 a.m.
Jennifer Cutruzzula, 24, is charged with leaving her 8-month-old baby in the woods in Wall on Feb. 28, 2013.
Jennifer Cutruzzula, 24, is charged with leaving her 8-month-old baby in the woods in Wall on Feb. 28, 2013.

Police said Jennifer Lynn Cutruzzula told them she thought she was doing the right thing when she abandoned her 8-month-old daughter in a wooded area in Wall.

East McKeesport police Chief Russell Stroschein said neighbors saw Cutruzzula, 24, carry her daughter up a utility right-of-way into woods where Irwin Street and Center Avenue meet, then leave without her shortly before 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“She admitted she put the baby there, left a bottle of milk with the child and said she had been overwhelmed,” Stroschein said.

According to a criminal complaint, one neighbor went into the woods and found the baby, clad only in a one-piece outfit, crawling on her stomach along the wet hillside, and took her inside while his mother called 911.

The baby is in the protective custody of Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families, while Cutruzzula is in the county jail in lieu of $50,000 bond.

She was arraigned on counts of endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.

The criminal complaint said Cutruzzula told police “she was sorry, ... that she was having family issues with her mother and stepfather and just needed a fresh start.”

Police from East McKeesport and North Versailles Township responded to the 911 call.

According to the complaint, Cutruzzula placed the child on a hillside in the rain and sleet in 39-degree weather with winds at 7 mph.

When police arrived, a woman later identified as Cutruzzula ran past a patrol vehicle and said, “I fell and left the woods to get help.”

Others leaving the woods identified her as the baby's mother.

The woman who called 911 told the investigating officers that Cutruzzula “never asked to see the child.”

An Eastern Area Prehospital Services crew examined the child, then took her to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for evaluation.

At a news conference on Thursday, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. reminded the community of the Safe Haven project, which started locally as “A Hand to Hold” in 2001.

Zappala emphasized that parents who do not believe they can care for a child can safely surrender children less than a month old at any hospital under the Safe Haven law. As long as there are no signs of abuse, parents are immune from prosecution in such cases, he said.

“It's as simple as walking into a hospital and saying, ‘I want you to take my child,'” Zappala said.

Parents who need help but have older children not covered under the Safe Haven law can contact child protective services or other nonprofits such as Family Resources, said Department of Human Services spokesman Mark Bertolet.

“The district attorney is never in a rush to charge anyone in a situation like this,” Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said. “What is paramount is the safety of the child and that the child be turned over to a person or persons who can safely care for the child.”

Manko said “any criminal prosecution considerations would have been secondary to the safety of the child” if she had been taken to a safe haven.

Safe havens are adjacent to emergency rooms in all area hospitals, including UPMC East, UPMC McKeesport, Jefferson Regional Medical Center, Excela Westmoreland County hospitals and Forbes Regional Hospital.

They do not get much use.

“We have not had an incident,” Jefferson spokeswoman Candy Williams said.

“Although we are always prepared to care for them, since the designation, no children have been left at our hospitals,” said Jennifer Miele, spokeswoman for Excela's Greensburg, Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant hospitals.

Stroschein said Cutruzzula faces a preliminary hearing on Thursday at 1 p.m. before North Versailles Township Magisterial District Judge Robert L. Barner.

Cutruzzula has appeared before Barner before. On Monday she pleaded guilty to a count of retail theft at the North Versailles Walmart.

She was scheduled to face summary trial on March 13 before Barner on retail theft and defiant trespass charges filed by Walmart.

Trib Total Media staff writer Matthew Santoni contributed to this story. Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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