One by One, States Knit a Safety Net for Abandoned Newborns
A few hours after giving birth in March in a Fairfax, Va., motel room, Abigail Caliboso wrapped her baby in a cotton towel and left it on the floor of a portable toilet at a construction site in Delaware. The 19-year-old nursing student and the baby’s father, Jose Ocampo, 18, both of Virginia, were too frightened to tell their families that they had had a child.
Last month, the teenagers pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a Delaware court and agreed to accept five-year prison terms, pending the judge’s decision.
“They were scared young kids,” said Kathleen Jennings, Ocampo’s attorney. “They tried to find a place to leave the baby. They intended for this baby to be found alive. They just didn’t feel they had a safe alternative.”
Prompted by a rash of reports of “dumpster babies” abandoned by their parents, state lawmakers across the country have rushed through legislation in recent months that would provide that alternative. The so-called “safe haven” or “Baby Moses” laws would shield parents from criminal prosecution as long as they bring newborns to a hospital or other approved site.
Started by a TV reporter in Mobile, Ala., the movement gained momentum in September 1999 after Texas, stung by 13 baby abandonments in 10 months in the Houston area, became the first state to enact a safe haven law. Since then, 14 states have passed similar laws, and safe haven legislation has been introduced in an additional 12 states.
Safe Haven Foes Have ‘a Lot of Questions’
But although supporters of such bills are seen as well intentioned, the laws themselves have had a mixed reception. Some conservative groups, including Focus on the Family, have embraced the idea, but other conservatives fear it will promote a “casual, disposable” attitude toward children, said Teresa Wagner, policy analyst for sanctity-of-life issues at the Family Research Council.
So, too, some adoption groups oppose safe haven bills as a reckless alternative to adoption, saying that they essentially cut fathers out of the picture and that children dropped off anonymously have almost no chance of ever knowing their heritage or medical history.
Critics also have said that safe haven bills do nothing to help the babies’ troubled mothers, and child-welfare groups have expressed concern that the laws don’t address the larger issue of preventing child abandonment.
“There are a lot of questions,” said Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League, which hosted a conference on abandoned babies recently in Washington. “There are services that are available to these women. A lot of folks have worked hard to make sure there are health clinics and access to prenatal care. What’s making this group of women do this? . . . Why aren’t they accessing those services?”
Extensive Publicity Appears to Be Critical
But anecdotal evidence suggests that where safe haven laws are heavily publicized, they are working the way their proponents said they would: Women are coming forward and bringing in their newborns.
In Texas, for example, the law languished for almost a year until state Land Commissioner David Dewhurst spent more than $200,000 of his own money for public service announcements, informational kiosks at shopping malls and bus stop ads. In the last two months, two women have brought newborns to Texas hospitals.
And in New York, which enacted a safe haven law in July, two babies have been turned in, including one recently on Long Island, which an organization has blanketed with posters urging pregnant women to call its crisis hotline instead of abandoning their newborns.
Two weeks after New Jersey enacted its Safe Haven Infant Protection Act, a 4-day-old baby was turned in. In Alabama the tally is six, most of them in Mobile, which has had a highly publicized program since 1998.
“Legislation is one thing, but implementation is a completely different animal,” said Jodi Brooks, the Mobile reporter who started A Secret Safe Place for Newborns. “Anyone can pass a law. But until you tell people about the program, it’s nothing.”
Other jurisdictions have started imitating Mobile’s formula of taking out ads, distributing thousands of brochures at schools and clinics, and training hospital staff how to handle abandoned newborns.
No one can say if infant abandonment is increasing or if the incidents are just receiving more publicity. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 105 infants abandoned in “public places” in 1998, including 33 who were dead. In 1991, the only other recent year for which figures were compiled, 65 infants were found abandoned in public places, eight of them dead.
Researchers say that women who abandon their newborns often hid their pregnancies from friends and families and may be in denial. There may be a history of physical or sexual abuse that makes pregnancy traumatic. And they may fear letting their family down.
“She’s often the ‘good girl’ who keeps doing her sports, keeps doing well in school,” said Caroline Burry, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland who has interviewed young women who denied their pregnancies. “She may think: ‘I can’t be pregnant. This can’t be happening. I’m not a girl who does this. I’m supposed to be getting ready to go to college. I can’t be pregnant, therefore I won’t be pregnant.’ It’s denial. It can be incredibly powerful. If you can keep yourself from believing it, it lessens pain and distress.”
“Kids in this situation are just terrified,” said Jennings, who also represented Amy Grossberg, the New Jersey college student who, with her boyfriend, abandoned a baby boy in a trash bin in 1996 shortly after giving birth in a motel. Grossberg was recently released from prison after serving a two-year sentence; her boyfriend, Brian Peterson, served a six-month sentence.
“They usually are kids who’ve been very good, and they’re just terrified to let their parents know what they’ve gotten themselves into. . . . I think when you’re raised in a very close-knit, traditional family with a lot of traditional cultural values, it’s hard to let it be known that ‘Hey, I’m not perfect.’ ”
Some researchers believe that during childbirth a psychotic reaction can occur that is similar to what can happen in other severely stressful situations--for example, soldiers under fire--and that the reaction can compel a woman to try to rid herself of the newborn. Others contend that abandonment or neonaticide is the act of an emotionally immature, self-centered woman who may be distraught over the effect a baby will have on her life.
Whatever the reason for the abandonments, Long Island paramedic Timothy Jaccard deals with the consequences every day.
On a recent warm afternoon in Westbury, N.Y., he pulled his car through the gates of the Cemetery of the Holy Rood and headed for a triangle of lush grass where, laid out in neat little rows, were the small brass markers. Some were barely visible under the china figurines, fading flowers, stuffed bears and other toys piled on top.
“These are my babies,” Jaccard said as he hopped out.
Nineteen newborns, buried in pairs under 10 gravestones. A boy, found in a garbage can shortly after birth. A girl, found wrapped in a Disney blanket in a roadside ditch. Another girl, hours old when she was found in a plastic bag.
All of them abandoned, found dead, “adopted” by Jaccard, and then named and given a funeral by the organization he formed for just this purpose.
The 51-year-old grandfather of three launched a one-man mission to save “my babies” four years ago after being called to the local courthouse when the crumpled body of a newborn girl was found in a plastic bag draped over a toilet seat in the women’s restroom.
“I was crying,” said Jaccard, who has been a paramedic for 26 years. “I couldn’t come out of the stall. That’s when I decided that we’ve got to stop this from happening. Let’s bury the babies we have to bury, but we’ve got to stop this.”
Jaccard began by taking legal custody of abandoned babies, buying small plots at Holy Rood and organizing funerals for newborns. With other ambulance medical technicians, he formed the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, which he runs out of his home.
In the last two years, as the funerals have continued, the group has expanded. It now has a toll-free hotline for pregnant women (so far this year there have been 2,200 calls), helps operate a shelter for women with crisis pregnancies, publishes educational pamphlets and offers other services.
The group lobbied hard for New York’s safe haven law, which Gov. George E. Pataki signed in July, and it has launched an ambitious campaign to publicize the legislation.
The funerals have become elaborate affairs in the New York City area. A local funeral home donates the small white caskets and a hearse. Jaccard does the flower arrangements--roses and carnations, usually. Off-duty police form motorcycle escorts for the ride to the cemetery, where there is a full honor guard, a police helicopter flyover and bagpipers who play “Amazing Grace.”
And the number of grave markers--etched with names given to them by Jaccard--keeps growing: Jonathan. Angel. Faith. Holly. Noel. Christina. Angelica. Gabriella. Samuel. Angel Evergreen. Christine. April. Matthew. Summer. Valentine. Mary. Jose. Grace. Innocence.
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