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O.C. Expected to Add to Baby-Haven Sites

Times Staff Writer

When a passerby found an hours-old baby in a San Juan Capistrano trash bin last August, Orange County officials realized they had not yet taken advantage of a law that makes it easier for parents to safely surrender their newborns without criminal repercussion.

In coming weeks, Orange County is expected to designate 137 fire stations as “safe surrender” sites for abandoned newborns. In so doing, Orange County will join 15 California counties in authorizing fire stations as surrender sites under a state law that took effect in 2001.

Since then, 78 newborns have been safely surrendered under the law, according to state health officials. In Los Angeles County, 33 babies have been surrendered, many at fire stations; last year, more were relinquished at fire houses than at hospitals.

Since 2001, nine babies have been relinquished at Orange County hospitals.

The law established public and private hospital emergency rooms as places new mothers and others could surrender newborns younger than 72 hours without fear of criminal charges.

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Boards of supervisors were given authority to add “any other location,” spurring counties to include fire stations. Orange County added Orangewood Children’s Home in Orange.

Two years ago, Orange County grand jurors said that wasn’t good enough. They urged supervisors to add sites, noting there were 137 fire stations compared to 32 hospital emergency rooms, which were difficult to locate and intimidating to those wishing to surrender newborns anonymously.

The idea idled until last August, when a passerby rescued the newborn that had been discarded in a large trash bin at a San Juan Capistrano apartment complex. The newborn survived and is in a foster home.

Costa Mesa Fire Chief James Ellis, then-chairman of the Orange County Fire Chiefs Assn., said former Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad asked him to draft a resolution in which his fellow chiefs would support use of their fire stations.

“It was one of those things that had fallen through the cracks,” Ellis said. “The San Juan baby put everything back on the front burner.”

The law was a year old before Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe stumbled onto it, following the discovery in January 2002 of “Baby Andrew,” who had been thrown into a dumpster. That child also survived. L.A. County quickly designated its fire stations as surrender sites.

“The law had been on the books for a year and no one knew anything about it,” Knabe said. “I’ve never seen government move so quickly once we realized it was there.”

Los Angeles County has expanded its surrender locations to all but four of the county’s 88 cities. Of those, Pasadena and Santa Monica are moving to add their stations; Sierra Madre and Vernon opted out.

Orange County Supervisor Lou Correa, who, as a state assemblyman, voted for the original bill in 2000, urged his colleagues this week to make up for lost time. Also supporting the idea was board Chairman Bill Campbell, another former assemblyman.

Adding fire stations “should have been done right away,” Correa said in an interview. “I’m not going to point fingers, but let’s get this done. It was good policy in 2000 and it’s sad to have waited so long.”

The activity comes as the Legislature prepares to extend the baby-surrender law, which is set to expire Jan. 1. The state Senate voted unanimously this month to make the law permanent; the bill now moves to the Assembly.

Among those urging lawmakers to extend the law is Debbe Magnusen of Project Cuddle, a Fullerton-based group that says it has helped rescue more than 500 abandoned babies in the last nine years.

The group unveiled a video this month, intended for high school students, that explains the safe-surrender law. It features singer Paula Abdul and actors John Stamos, Mary Stuart Masterson and Kathy Najimy.

Magnusen said she’d like to see fire station doors opened for babies in every county because mothers could avoid busy emergency rooms, where they would be in full view of security cameras, staff and patients.

Conversely, Magnusen and Ellis worry that mothers might leave their newborns at untended fire stations when crews are out on a call.

“If there’s no one there, that’s abandonment, not surrender,” Ellis said, adding that babies cannot be left on a doorstep. The law encourages the person turning over the baby to provide medical information, and allows parents to reclaim a child within 14 days if they change their mind.

Fire stations were added as safe surrender sites in Riverside County in March after Fire Chief Craig Anthony pushed for it.

“I guess it fell through the cracks here too,” Riverside County chief administrator Larry Parrish said. “There was absolutely no opposition from anyone to do it.”

San Diego County hasn’t added fire stations to its surrender sites and isn’t eager to do so, said Debra Zanders-Willis of the county’s Health & Human Services Agency. Because the law is only a few years old, the county decided to concentrate on making sure mothers realized they could turn over their babies at hospitals, she said.

“We’ve assessed that our fire departments aren’t always equipped to handle [surrenders] on a regular or routine basis and the safest choice would be to have them taken to emergency rooms or hospitals,” she said.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors, under then-Chairman Tom Wilson, endorsed the grand jury recommendation two years ago and pledged to work through the Orange County Fire Authority, created in 1995 to cover unincorporated areas and then 19 cities. The authority now includes the county and 22 cities.

The fire authority took the first step in January by authorizing its 60 stations as surrender locations. Now, the dozen remaining Orange County cities have agreed to open their fire stations, said Battalion Chief Ed Fleming, who chairs OCFA’s safe-surrender committee.

The next step is the formal designation by the Board of Supervisors.

The 2001 law passed at the urging of Debi Faris-Cifelli, a Yucaipa mother of three who began burying abandoned babies who died in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties at her Garden of Angels cemetery. When she prepared to bury babies No. 42 and 43, she said she decided it was time to ask the Legislature to help put her out of business.

She asked then-Sen. Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga to carry a bill allowing babies to be surrendered without penalties at hospitals, where they could receive care before being transferred to a county’s welfare department.

The bill was based on a breakthrough Texas law signed in 1999 by then-Gov. George W. Bush. A bill similar to Brulte’s was introduced in the Assembly by former Orange County Assemblyman Ken Maddox.

Faris-Cifelli, who said she had buried 72 abandoned babies at her cemetery, supports counties providing safe havens through their fire stations.

“I realized that when you live in a place that’s really spread out, you might not know where there’s a hospital, but people know where their fire station is,” she said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Into safe hands

Fifteen counties in California have designated fire stations as ‘safe surrender’ locations, based on a state law that authorized hospital emergency rooms as places where people could leave newborns without being prosecuted for abandonment.

Counties with fire stations designated as ‘safe surrender’ sites

Sacramento Co.

San Bernardino Co.

Riverside Co.

L.A. Co.

Ventura Co.

Kern Co.

Lake Co.

Napa Co.

Yolo Co.

Marin Co.

San Francisco Co.

Contra Costa Co.

Santa Clara Co.

San Joaquin Co.

Alameda Co.

Source: Project Cuddle

Los Angeles Times


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