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Sunday
Jul162000

Born to Live, Left to Die

[Citizen, July 2000]

She wrapped her baby boy in a crib bedsheet covered with tiny balls and bats. He wore an angel necklace and a felt diaper. Carefully she laid him where someone was sure to find him, near a parked car, 200 feet from the entrance to the Indianapolis Community Hospital.

It was snowy and flakes settled around the squirming child. No one heard his voice, and the cries gradually grew weaker. Finally a woman who came out to smoke a cigarette spotted the tiny bundle in the snow.

By then it was too late.

Only a little further and the mother could have stepped inside the warm hospital and handed her baby to a medical worker, then fled before questioning. But that would have been illegal. It’ s called child abandonment. The only legal way for a mom to relinquish a child is through adoption, with all its papers and forms and interviews.

In decades past, women could conceal pregnancies by going to a maternity home in a different city and quietly place the child for adoption, with records permanently sealed. Today, as stigma against unwed pregnancy has disappeared, so have these resources. A woman has fewer options for concealing a pregnancy today, and adoption is far less likely to be anonymous; some states have considered laws to unseal adoption records retroactively, against the mother’s wishes. Abortion has become the one way a woman can permanently conceal a pregnancy. Now, giving birth, then abandoning, the baby looms as a second option.

Now picture a teen who has denied and concealed a pregnancy for nine months, then undergoes the cataclysm of birth, perhaps all alone. The squalling infant terrifies her and all she can think of is getting away from it as fast as possible. In the best of cases, she wants the child to survive and be cared for by someone else. The mom in Indianapolis apparently felt that way, and left her baby well-swaddled in a public place. She made the best plan she could. It wasn’t good enough.

New stories like this keep piling up, at the rate of about a hundred a year. (That’ s only the stories reported in the media; no public agency keeps record.) Perhaps we first became aware of them in 1996, with the college students in Delaware who tossed their baby in a dumpster. Soon after, a New Jersey prom-goer stuffed hers in a bathroom wastebasket and went back to the dance. Since then the numbers of abandoned babies have only increased. They’re found in portable toilets and on railroad tracks and squirming behind the diapers on a grocery store shelf. Sometimes they’re found in time to be loved and adopted — but no doubt many are never found at all.

Enough stories like this and people start getting a little frantic. From coast to coast, state legislators have been asking: What’s causing this awful plague? How can we stop it?

One idea: soften laws prosecuting mothers for child abandonment, as long as they take the child to a designated safe place. This is what the Texas state legislature did in September 1999, after 13 abandoned babies were found in a ten-month period. While baby abandonment is still prosecutable, the new law offers an affirmative defense to the woman who goes to a hospital or fire station and hands her baby to an emergency medical services provider, as long as the baby has not been abused and is under 30 days old.

In Mobile, Alabama, where 19 abandoned babies died in a year, the law goes one step further: zero risk of prosecution and no questions asked, if the child is brought in within three days of birth and has not been abused. The idea is catching on. In the recent legislative session, 27 states proposed legislation amending child-abandonment laws.

Would such laws make any difference? A lot of women might be too confused, careless, or drug-addled to respond to such an invitation. But there may be a few moms for whom such a legal respite would make a life-saving difference. Perhaps the mom of the baby in the parking lot would have been one of them.

Publicizing the change in the law is key. In Houston’s Harris County, 75 billboards went up urging "Don’t Abandon Your Baby!" and listing a toll-free number. A website, www.babymoses.org, also supports the effort. "We want to give moms a last chance to do the right thing, and avoid the dumpster phenomenon," says Judy Hay, information officer of Harris County, Texas, Child Protection Services.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of such efforts. Since the passage of the law two more abandoned babies have been found alive, both in places where the mother apparently expected them to be found swiftly and safely. Neither, however, met the law’s criterion of handing the babies to medical personnel.

And the hotline? "There’s been about 450 calls to the hotline since it began on December 21," says Joel Levine, director of the hotline project. "About 20 have been counseling calls" — for information about pregnancy options—  "but there’s been no crisis calls from someone at the point of delivery. All the rest have been calls from the media, from people wanting to adopt or just to help."

The media has been helpful in publicizing the new law, and whenever a baby is found alive there are usually news stories expressing relief. Hay wonders if even this might have an undesired effect, that of giving moms the impression that public abandonment will bring a happy ending to their problems. In the most recent case, on April 16, two girls found a baby in a carseat near the leasing office of a rental complex. "People need to keep in mind that a stray dog might have found the baby before they did," says Hay.

While even proponents of such laws have only hope, not proof, of positive effects, opponents of the laws bring tough questions. A conservative Christian organization in California, the Capitol Resources Institute, has decided to oppose their state’s proposed law. As former director Eric Washburn says, "This legislation is trying to care for the baby, but it ignores the consequences to the mother, and to society." Any mother considering abandonment must be in desperate straits, Washburn reasons, and it is a major failure not to help her. Laws like these "encourage a mother to abandon her child" and "create dysfunctional women who years down the road will still be dealing with the trauma of what happened in their lives."  Last year 120 babies were lost nationwide, Washburn says, "a huge tragedy, but not justification for creating another statewide bureaucracy" or extending the powers of Child Protective Services.

Few stand with the Capitol Resources Institute in taking an outright stand against these laws. After all, the law does not approve abandonment; it merely gives incentive for desperate women to choose life over death for a newborn. Since pro-lifers have consistently opposed laws to punish the woman who has an abortion (laws should instead target abortion businesses), it makes sense not to punish a woman who preserves the life of her child and surrenders him in safety. Some wish that intervention could come earlier, like MaryLee Allen, child welfare director of the Children’s Defense Fund: "You wonder if more couldn’t be done to help pregnant women from getting to that point." Similarly, Michael McGee, education director of Planned Parenthood, calls the law "a Band-Aid after the fact."

Sometimes the law has been mistakenly seen as a project of the "far right." The Baby Moses website quotes what it calls "an ad hominem attack" in an internet debate, during which a participant stated that "the fact that the militant fringe of the far right… [has] come out in support of such laws should [be] all that one needs to say on the subject. … [W]hen people widely believed to be apologists for terrorism support a law, beware the law…" In rebuttal, the website states that the Texas law was developed by a Republican State Legislator, Geanie Morrison, and a Democrat U.S. Representative, Sheila Jackson Lee. Broad bipartisan support is typical for laws like these.

Nevertheless, other nagging questions remain about such legislation.

Does the father know the mother is abandoning the baby? Does he even know he is a father? What about his rights? In McLennan County, Texas, a young woman concealed her pregnancy from everyone, delivered herself in a bathtub, and placed the baby on the porch of a family home nearby. The new Texas law does not permit this, and the woman will probably be placed on probation; her rights to the baby have been terminated. But the baby’s father, astonished to learn of its existence, has applied for custody, and Child Protective Services is working on his home study.

What about family health records and concerns? Some states instruct baby-receiving personnel to invite the mother to give health information, but will not require her to do so, in order to keep roadblocks to a minimum. As Nina Mbengue of the National Conference of State Legislatures says, "There are no medical records for any of the infants abandoned in public or dangerous places."

 Is this woman really the baby’s mother? The child might have been kidnapped, or stolen by someone wanting revenge on the mother. "Either way, that baby is going to be better off with medical personnel," says Detective Thomas Noble of the McLennan County, Texas, police force. "If that child has been abducted, it’ s already in a dangerous situation. If someone has a change of heart, that’s good." Found babies are reported widely in the media, so a worried mom could be reunited with her baby swiftly.

How old can the child be? Six states would limit the age to just 72 hours; two would allow children as old as 24 months. How good is the medical worker at guessing exactly how many days old a baby is? Should "overage" babies be refused? In 1709, Hamburg, Germany opened a service to take in abandoned babies, but closed it a year later when parents started bringing in older kids.

What if the mother wants to reclaim the baby later on? The Minnesota bill would give identification bands to mother and infant. These would not establish maternity, paternity, or custody, but would grant the adult possessing a bracelet standing to pursue custody, as long as parental rights have not been terminated.

If the woman is bringing in the baby because she is in a situation of abuse or incest, does "no questions asked" just enable that to continue?

Does this law give the appearance of approving child abandonment? How will that affect society, long-term?

While no one is viewing these laws as a great step forward for civilization, many thoughtful people are concluding that they are a tragic necessity; if they save one life, they’re worth it. But that brings us to the final, stubborn questions: why do women do this? What can possibly be done to stop them?

Judy Hay has met a few post-abandonment mothers, and "felt for them a lot," she says. The girls would recount a story of determined avoidance of their situation until it was too late, which "gave me a whole new perspective on denial," she says. "They viewed it as something to get rid of. Their language was very detached."

Hay points out that research is non-existent, because these mothers are seldom found. Her sample of only a few moms might not match up with someone else’s tiny sample. Research has been proposed at the Baylor College of Medicine to explore what motivates these women, so that laws, and the publicizing of laws, might be fine-tuned.

One theory is that the moms are drug addicts, but Hay says that the babies recovered in Houston have not tested positive for drugs. Some theorize that women abandoning babies are impoverished and desperate, but others counter that an unplanned pregnancy is more acceptable among the poor than among the upper classes, where a young woman might be terrified to tell her parents of her mistake.

Richard Wessler, head of psychology at Pace University in New York, says that teen moms are generally immature at problem-solving, and their primary impulse is to get away from the babies: "out of sight, out of mind. There’s little thought for the consequences and no realization that the infant they’ve just given birth to is a real-live human being."

In the April, 2000, issue of Jane magazine, Linda Brakefield recounts her own tragic experience. Four years ago, Linda says, her daughter Casey concealed a pregnancy, gave birth in a Linda’s bathroom, and carried the newborn out of the house in a duffel bag. She went to an older sister’s house, where a few days later Linda was invited to come and meet the granddaughter she had no idea she had.

But two years later the story repeated itself, with a bitter twist. As before, Linda noticed her daughter putting on weight and asked if she was pregnant, and again Casey denied it. Linda pleaded, "I’m here for you — come on," but Casey kept insisting, "There is no baby."

One day Casey came home wearing tight jeans and asked her mom, "Don’t I look great?"

Linda was horrified and asked where the baby was. "Leave me alone," Casey said. So Linda called the police.

It took six hours of interrogation. Casey had given birth to a boy, wrapped him in plastic, and left him in her car for a couple of days. Then she retrieved him and threw him in a dumpster.

That evening the police found the body. "I had to hold him," Linda said, crying. "It may sound gross to other people, but I sat there and watched this baby grow inside her, and I had to hold him."

Casey served seven months in jail, where she was diagnosed as having a "narcissistic personality." Casey describes her jail time as "a party," and her mother says she has never shown remorse.

Is such a case typical? Who knows? In the absence of research, all we can know is that some women feel a strong impulse is to get away from their babies quickly, permanently, and anonymously.

The question is: will she place him in the arms of a nurse, or throw him in a dumpster? Can laws affect such a decision? Can billboards and hotlines? In the midst of a situation of horror and tragedy, terrible questions arise. Legislators are just beginning to work out the answers.

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