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A Cry to Save Lives of ‘Dumpster Babies’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A young Mar Vista woman who attended her high school prom in May now walks into a courtroom wearing a blue L.A. County jail jumpsuit. Alejandra Gomez, facing a murder charge, is accused of secretly giving birth to a baby boy, who died after she dumped him in a trash can earlier this year.

A former USC student, Linda Chu, is serving a five-year term in a San Joaquin Valley prison for strangling her newborn daughter, then dumping her into a trash chute that serviced her dormitory.

A state law that takes effect on Jan. 1 aims to save such babies. The law, part of a national trend to address the issue of so-called “dumpster babies,” will allow mothers to leave unwanted newborns anonymously at hospital emergency rooms within 72 hours of birth without the threat of prosecution. Mothers will also have two weeks to change their minds.

“Maybe it would have helped our situation,” said the father of a Santa Ana 17-year-old who is serving a four-year term in a California Youth Authority facility for throwing her newborn son out a second-story apartment bedroom window in July 1997. “Our situation is in the past. It doesn’t do us any good.” (The baby survived and has been adopted.)

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As the new law is about to take effect, the finishing touches are also being put on a pro bono ad campaign to get the word to pregnant women in desperate straits. (The statedid not allocate any funding for publicity.)

Carol McCarty, a Los Angeles advertising executive, has teamed up with Debi Faris, an advocate for abandoned babies and force behind the new law, to create public awareness. McCarty contacted Faris after reading about Faris’ widely publicized Garden of Angels, a Calimesa, Calif., cemetery where 44 abandoned newborns from Southern California have been buried in the last four years. Faris also created an entity called Safe Arms, to focus on prevention and to publicize the new law.

With a contribution of $10,000 from Safe Arms, the pair have made two 30-second television spots in English and Spanish and are hoping they will air statewide as public service announcements. McCarty recruited volunteers from the entertainment industry for the ads that, she estimated, would have cost $250,000 to produce.

The ads are blunt:

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“Are you pregnant?” a voice asks in one.

“Yes,” a girl responds.

“Do you have a choice?”

“Yes.”

Then there are images of a dumpster, a storm drain, the inside of a garbage can, the beach and a toilet.

The girl yells “No!” And the ad ends by urging the young woman to leave the baby at a hospital, no questions asked.

Faris has also organized a conference about the law that will be held in February in Ontario. She hopes to attract professionals from schools, hospitals, social service, public health and law enforcement agencies. “This [law] changes everything for us,” said Faris. “We can try to be a part of helping this tragedy from happening in the first place.”

At least 30 states have either passed a similar law or have one pending.

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Although the numbers are not large, Texas and Alabama are held up as models of success. In Texas, where the law was passed in 1999 after 13 babies were found in the Houston area in a 10-month period, two babies have been brought to hospitals.

In Alabama, where a publicity campaign was started by Mobile television newswoman Jodi Brooks, whose station airs public service announcements up to 35 times a week, eight babies have been brought to hospitals since November 1998.

There are no authoritative statistics on the number of abandoned newborn babies. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found, by compiling reports from newspapers around the country, that 105 newborns had been abandoned--33 of them were found dead.

Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the agency said: “We believe the number of abandoned babies is a small one.”

In Los Angeles, about half a dozen babies are found dumped each year, but some people believe the number is much higher. “There are probably 10 times more that we don’t get notified of or are successfully disposed of,” said LAPD Det. Howard Beardsley, who handled the case of a baby found alive in a trash can in Boyle Heights earlier this year.

“The fact that we find them is more of a surprise,” said Deanne Tilton Durfee, executive director of the Los Angeles County Interagency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Not everyone is an unalloyed fan of the new law. Some think it will encourage abandonment.

“We are not going to encourage [women to use the law],” said Debbie Magnusen, founder and director of Project Cuddle, an Orange County organization that has served nearly 300 women and their babies since 1996 by helping with everything from prenatal care to adoption. “Why offer where to abandon your baby? Why not offer prevention as well?”

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But Faris said the law is not about encouraging abandonment; it’s about saving babies who otherwise might end up in dumpsters.

Faris has attended court hearings in a few cases where a mother has been found. She keeps in touch with some of the mothers serving time because she sees them as victims too. During the sentencing of Chu, the USC student whose baby had been tossed into the trash chute, Faris read a letter asking Chu to some day come to the Garden of Angels where her daughter is buried.

There is no common socioeconomic profile for the young women who hide pregnancies and abandon babies, say those who deal with them. They can be teenagers--but often they are in their 20s. They can be poor or affluent. In panic, they can do terrible things to the babies or leave them in safe places, as happened last summer in Lincoln Heights, where a baby was found safe on church steps by parishioners and is now being adopted.

For Faris, the law not only could save babies’ lives, but might also spare the mothers the lasting emotional pain that comes from acting recklessly in a moment of confusion.

“It’s about these mothers, too,” she said, “to keep them from making such a tragic mistake.”

Garden of Angels and Safe Arms can be reached at (909) 797-8599. Project Cuddle can be reached at (888) 628-3353.


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