Few Babies Are Finding 'Safe Haven'

Times Staff Writer

When the labor pains hit, the 16-year-old Florida girl went into the bedroom she shared with her sister, shut the door and, as quietly as possible, gave birth to a full-term boy.

For months, she had hidden her pregnancy. She had continued to compete in high school sports and had gained almost no weight. Now there was the question of what to do.

"I wanted to call someone," she said. "I was racking my brain, like, 'Who can I call?' And I couldn't think of anyone."

So the high school junior wrapped her baby in a towel and, crying, left him in a boat parked in a driveway across the street. It was New Year's Eve.

The baby was visible, lying in the back of the boat, and the girl said she intended for the neighbors to find him. But on Jan. 2, when she went to check, he lay dead of exposure.

Last week, sheriff's homicide detectives asked the Florida state attorney to charge the girl -- an A student with no criminal record -- with manslaughter. Det. Allen Lee said the case was easy to solve but impossible to understand.

"She's a bright and articulate individual," he said. "As smart as she is, how did she make this decision?"

The girl, who asked that her name not be used, said she didn't know about Florida's safe haven law, which allows mothers to surrender newborns at hospitals, fire stations and other locations within 72 hours of birth, no questions asked. Maybe if she had known, her baby would be alive, she said.

That is the hope of proponents and lawmakers in more than 40 states who have rushed to pass safe haven laws since Texas enacted the first one in 1999.

In California, which has had a safe haven statute since 2001, officials are about to unveil the second phase of a $1.7-million drive to publicize the law. In Los Angeles County, all county vehicles will soon bear bumper stickers that read, "Don't Abandon Your Baby." But as these efforts are launched, a number of experts are questioning whether the safe haven concept works.

"We're having more babies abandoned than ever before," said Debbe Magnusen, founder of Costa Mesa-based Project Cuddle, which runs a 24-hour hotline for women who are hiding pregnancies or contemplating abandoning babies.

In the last seven years, Project Cuddle says it has helped more than 450 mothers, including one who smuggled her baby out of her house in a laundry basket and called the hotline from a phone booth.

California, like many states, does not have comprehensive statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of abandoned babies is not decreasing.

In Los Angeles County, 14 babies were found abandoned in 2001, and 11 of them died. Not a single woman that year took advantage of the safe haven law. In 2002, 10 babies were safely surrendered, but 13 were abandoned, eight of whom died, according to county statistics.

Among them were two infants whose bodies were discovered on moving trash conveyer belts at waste treatment centers last summer, and an infant whose body washed up on the sands of Long Beach, floating inside a plastic bag.

Already in 2003, three newborns have been found dead in L.A. County, two of them in trash bins. The third was born Feb. 12 to a 16-year-old Carson girl, sheriff's investigators said. After giving birth at home in secret, she suffocated the boy and hid the body in her closet, they said. Her parents found the baby in the morning and called authorities.

Officials say it hurts to imagine how many more tiny bodies made it to landfills without being discovered. Across the country, similar dumping continues despite safe haven laws.

"There is no evidence, none, to indicate that these laws appeal to the population at whom they were aimed," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, which will release a study today analyzing the safe haven laws.

Critics such as Pertman charge that the statutes are feel-good measures enacted by horror-stricken lawmakers -- usually after a publicized death -- that do little to address the circumstances that would prompt a woman to kill or dump her newborn.

Women who abandon their babies represent every ethnicity and level of wealth and poverty, said Michelle Oberman, a law professor at DePaul University who has written a book titled "Mothers Who Kill Their Children." Often, they are classic "good girls," she said, bright students, thoughtful daughters, anxious to please, terrified of making a mistake.

A number of them have had little sexual experience; others already have had children, experts said.

But most have one thing in common: a deep denial about their pregnancies, Oberman said. They wear baggy clothes, starve themselves and turn away questions about their changing shapes. "They tend to be quite young, socially immature, profoundly isolated," Oberman said. In her research, she traced every known U.S. case of a woman killing her child from 1990 through 2000. Many of the mothers were 17 or younger. For most, abortion wasn't an option because they didn't face their pregnancies until it was too late.

"They really do deny the fact that they are pregnant ... and at the end of nine months, they mistake labor for a bowel movement, they deliver on the toilet ... and they panic."

Margaret Spinelli, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied infanticide, said many of these women describe giving birth as if it were a play they were watching, not something happening to them.

"They deliver, and all of a sudden they are presented with the very thing they denied for nine months," she said. "I don't think it's a simple panic.... I think what happens then is some of them, they have this brief psychotic episode."

"Denial," said the Florida teen whose baby died in the boat, "is a very strong thing." In her health class, she had learned that teenagers active in sports often miss menstrual periods. It didn't occur to her that she was pregnant, she said, until around her seventh month.

No one -- not her mother, her friends or her coach -- suspected she was pregnant, Det. Lee said.

Two months before she gave birth, she felt a kick. She tried not to think about it. She knew of teens who'd had babies, she said, and it ruined their lives.

"I didn't want that to be me. I was scared that my mom would find out. I wanted to be perfect so bad. I wanted to make the best grades and be in perfect shape and be the perfect daughter."

The day she discovered that her son had died, she called the county Sheriff's Department and said she had come upon a baby. Police suspected she was the mother and asked her to allow a DNA test, Lee said.

"I think eventually she would have come forward on her own," he said. She never told the baby's father -- she hasn't seen him much since he graduated last summer -- nor anyone at school. What happened isn't mentioned at home, either, and her siblings may not know, she said.

"I cry myself to sleep" thinking about her son, she said.

Proponents of safe havens contend that they could save babies like this if their mothers knew there were places to leave them, anonymously. The answer, they say, is more publicity.

"What we're trying to create is another option," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who advocated bumper stickers after a county worker found a baby in a Pasadena dumpster last year. The baby survived. Los Angeles County has a hotline, 1-877-BABYSAFE, and plans to place notices on bus shelters and billboards soon.

"If we can save just one life, the law has done its job," said Blanca Castro, spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services. She said policymakers know there are some women who will not use the law, but that officials hope their publicity campaign will also influence teachers, parents and others to reach out to women who are pregnant and may be at risk for abandoning their infants.

"I think it's a lifesaving law," said Debi Faris, 47, a Redlands mother who pushed for the passage of California's statute and also founded a cemetery, "Garden of Angels," for abandoned babies. Since 1996, she has dug 59 tiny graves there, and plans three more for bodies still at the Los Angeles County coroner's office. Faris notes that nearly two dozen babies have been surrendered statewide under the law.

But Faris also said that policymakers must learn more about why women abandon babies, to help prevent it. "I've heard the girls say over and over ... that they felt like they would be rejected, judged.... They felt as if they might be abandoned in some way themselves" if their pregnancies were discovered.

Some of the women have later helped her publicize safe haven laws. Among them is Joanne De La Cruz, who gave birth in her dorm room at UC Santa Cruz in 1996, then smothered her baby and put the body in a dumpster.

De La Cruz, who grew up in a devoutly Catholic family, kept her secret for four years, then confessed to a therapist, who alerted authorities.

De La Cruz's mother testified that she raised her daughter to believe that premarital sex was a mortal sin and "a disgrace" and that her daughter knew "that I would throw her out of the house" if she became pregnant.

In a plea agreement, De La Cruz pleaded guilty last year to manslaughter and promised to do 500 hours of community service, much of it publicizing California's safe haven law. She worked with authorities, including the assistant district attorney who prosecuted her, to make a public service video.

In Illinois, a young woman whose baby died of exposure after she abandoned it has become an advocate for that state's safe haven program. Kelli Moye was 15 and a high school freshman when she gave birth in her bedroom one morning in 1996.

"I hid my pregnancy from my family and friends," Moye wrote in a brochure that is passed out in some schools. "I worried that people would reject me or be angry with me if they found out I was pregnant.

"I made a terrible mistake that I can never take back. I left my newborn on a neighbor's porch. My baby died there, and my life will never be the same. I don't want the same thing to happen to you and your baby."

Moye, who would not be interviewed but agreed to answer e-mail, wrote that she believes women still dump their babies because "they don't know the law is there for them to use.... The only time I hear about it is when a baby turns up dead."

Oberman, the law professor who has studied infanticide, said she commended the women for taking responsibility for their actions. But, she said, the problem goes beyond the mothers.

"In these cases, there's blood on more than one set of hands," she said. What about the baby's father? Or the girl's parents, who accept it when she tells them she's just gained a little bit of weight?

"This is a complicated problem," Oberman said. "If this is all we do, and we expect to solve it ... we are as foolish as the girls who deny they are pregnant."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°