A Refuge For Throwaways

  • The girl couldn't admit the truth to her family now, not after concealing her pregnancy for so long. She could have tossed the wide-eyed, curly-haired boy into Mobile Bay or buried him in the woods at the edge of town. But instead, on a cold Christmas Eve night in Alabama, she stood in the emergency room at Springhill Memorial Hospital, looking around until her eyes locked on supervisor Teri Little. Her voice hollow, she asked, "Is this where I drop my baby off?"

    She handed over the boy, wrapped in a blanket, dressed in a blue-yellow-and-pink beanie. But there was no gentleness in the passing; it was as if the child were a sack of potatoes. The supervisor stared into her eyes, hoping to glimpse regret or agony. All she saw was relief. When Little asked if the baby had any medical condition that nurses might need to know about, the young mother cut her off. She turned around and walked out without saying a word, without looking back. In Little's arms, the baby cooed. "You try standing in her shoes. You try not to judge," says Little. "But you wonder how she could just leave a beautiful baby boy."

    The story is heartbreaking, but it is, in its small way, an attempt at happier endings. In Mobile, as part of a program that began in November 1998, mothers are permitted to abandon their newborns at hospitals and walk away--no questions asked. In exchange, district attorney John Tyson has agreed not to prosecute the mothers if they bring the infants within three days of birth and don't harm them. "We're just trying to prevent a desperate situation," Tyson says. "If you could have a healthy, bouncing baby as opposed to a dead infant, which one would you choose?" Indeed, after a spate of tragic "Dumpster baby" stories in the media, states from Alabama to California are choosing to debate and institute regulations that would allow women to "safely" abandon unwanted newborns.

    The impetus for change comes from small groups of homespun activists. In suburban Pittsburgh, Pa., Gigi Kelly, a nurse and mother, was inspired to begin a local campaign after a healthy 8-lb. baby boy was left in a trash bag behind her family's church. Kelly found an old laundry basket, lined it with a warm blanket and put it on her front porch. Then she called reporters with a plea for young mothers to bring their babies to her. I'll take it from there, she promised. Nobody has taken up her offer yet, but still she waits. "It's a strange feeling when you lay your head on the pillow at night," she says. "Kind of spooky." With only a manual typewriter and a fax machine, she turned her Baskets for Babies program into a public-awareness campaign for young moms who think they have nowhere to turn. Now when night falls on Pittsburgh, 608 families leave their porch lights on and have their baskets ready.

    Mobile's program began after a local television reporter, Jodie Brooks, covered two stories. One involved a young upper-middle-class woman convicted of murder after she drowned her newborn in a toilet because she feared the stigma of illegitimacy. The other involved a mother who abandoned her baby outside Catholic Social Services. It was found alive, but police announced she could face abuse or neglect charges. Brooks was appalled that a woman could be punished for leaving the baby rather than killing it. She enlisted district attorney Tyson, and they met with social workers and hospital administrators to create the program called A Secret Safe Place for Newborns. "We want to save the baby's life and save the mother from a lifetime of guilt," says Brooks. "It's not a crime to get pregnant. It's not a crime to have a baby. It's a crime to drop it into a Dumpster." Since the program started, two infants have been turned in and only one has been "dumped"--a little boy tied inside a Wal-Mart bag, covered with ants and maggots when a sanitation crew found him in the woods.

    Several states are considering whether to rewrite laws or create similar amnesty programs. Along highways in Houston, billboards plead with mothers not to abandon their newborns. Texas legislators were first in the nation to pass a law that encourages mothers to hand their babies to emergency medical technicians at hospitals or fire stations. It does not make them immune from prosecution, but allows their lawyers to offer as a defense the fact that they brought the child to a safe place.

    In California, state senator Jim Brulte has proposed a bill along the Texas lines. California currently considers baby abandonment a felony. In Brulte's proposal, mothers could avoid prosecution if they leave their infants at hospitals, fire or police stations or social-welfare offices. They would have 30 days to bring in the child, and once in custody, the infants would be placed for adoption or in foster care. Says Brulte, a Republican: "Our message to young mothers is that guilt, shame or panic are not reasons to destroy a newborn's chance at life."

    Brulte was inspired by Debi Faris, a housewife and mother in Yukaipa, in Southern California. She tends the Garden of Angels, a lonely, windswept cemetery tucked in the shadow of parched hills. There were 38 graves in the garden last week, two of them freshly dug. Since May 1996, Faris has buried abandoned babies here, giving the unknown infants first names, using the etymologies of the names as epitaphs. Over there, she says, is Grace (God's Blessing), who was found in a Palmdale aqueduct by two teenagers. And there is Linden (Excellent Worker). Only his head was found by a road crew clearing debris. And over there is Jordan (God's Heir), who was a week old when he was found by someone looking for bottles and cans in a trash bin on Malibu beach. Touched by a TV report of an abandoned child, Faris worked through the bureaucracy to give it a decent burial and has since made it her mission to provide the brief lives with a finale other than anonymous cremation and mass burial. "This is what we've become as a society," she told herself. "It is easy to throw our children away." She hopes Brulte's proposed legislation will save lives.

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