When 18-year-old Lajuna Shanetta Hayes gave birth alone in her cousin's Tustin apartment 3 1/2 weeks ago, she said she felt she had nowhere to turn.
Police said Hayes was so confused and scared at the prospect of raising a child on her meager salary as a drugstore cashier that she placed 2-day-old George into a paper bag and left him in the bushes at her cousin's apartment complex. On the bag was a note reading, "Whoever finds this take care of this baby please!"
Amid pessimistic reports from police that little can be done to prevent such actions, several county groups whose goal is to prevent child abuse said that child abandonment can be stopped if the public is aware of services available to low-income teen mothers, who are most likely to cast off their children.
George Hayes--who was found by Hayes' cousin shortly after he was abandoned and now is being cared for by his grandmother--was the third baby in three weeks to be abandoned in Orange County, according to county officials.
An unidentified male infant was left in a Garden Grove trash bin near Crystal Cathedral on March 13, the same day that 1-year-old Joshua Walsh was abandoned in bushes near a Garden Grove home. Both babies are healthy and are being cared for at Orangewood, the only county-run facility for abused, abandoned or neglected children.
"I'm really sorry I did it--it was a big mistake," Hayes said in a jail interview shortly after her arrest April 3.
She had moved to Tustin from Florida two months ago to live with her cousin because, she said, she believed neither her parents nor George's father (who is still in Florida) would give her financial help in supporting the baby.
"I would have had help (from her parents and cousin), but I didn't know that then," Hayes said. She is now seeking custody of George, and a hearing on that issue will be held May 5 in Juvenile Court.
Hayes' mother, Faith, arrived in California to take temporary custody of her grandson, and she plans to remain until the case is resolved.
"We're pleased because this is the first step toward returning the baby to his mother's care," said Myles A. Lenhoff, deputy public defender.
Hayes also has support from a local group of parents. Sally Nava-Kanarek, president of Mothers (and Others) Against Child Abuse, heard about the abandonment and encouraged fellow parents of children attending Coastline Community College's preschool to form an informal support group for Hayes and her son.
In addition, the Buena Park-based Exchange Club for the Prevention of Child Abuse, with which Nava-Kanarek also is involved, has assigned Hayes a social worker who will visit regularly to help her develop parenting skills and to provide information on job-training programs.
Hayes pleaded guilty April 9 to felony charges of child endangerment and abandonment, was released on her own recognizance and is awaiting sentencing May 16.
Although she could receive a jail sentence of up to six years, Hayes has a better chance of getting custody of her child and a probation sentence, Nava-Kanarek said, because the court is aware there are relatives and others who will provide support.
Feels Like Punishment
The Coastline parents already have given Hayes a crib, clothing and formula for her baby, Nava-Kanarek said.
"Teen mothers feel like they're being punished (by their pregnancy)," Nava-Kanarek said, adding that these mothers, in turn, may punish their children through abandonment or abuse.
Had Hayes known about Child Or Parental Emergency Services (COPES) in Santa Ana, she could have left her child there for up to 30 days while receiving counseling on handling her new child and information on where to get help in supporting the baby, said Milly Carota, a medical social worker at COPES.
"Sometimes you get frustrated because you can't reach out to enough people," Carota said, explaining that the COPES shelter can house only six children at a time and all must be age 5 and under.
If the shelter is full, as it often is, COPES workers will refer parents to Orangewood. However, that step usually involves forcing the parents to admit to authorities that they have abused their children, Carota said. "Once they get into the system, they lose control of the children," she said.
Orangewood often takes in children whose parents don't want them, said Dorothy Hayward, an aide to Orangewood's deputy director. "Usually (the children) come here from the hospital until they can be placed (with an adoptive or foster family)," Hayward said.
The county also sponsors Upbeat, a month-old referral service that directs pregnant teens and young mothers to child-care services and parenting classes.
Under the pilot program, girls age 17 and under can receive counseling, job training and information on such basic needs as housing or birth control until they are 20 years old, said J.J. Alboney, a spokesperson for Upbeat.