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Cheated of Life, 'Baby Does' Are Remembered in Death : Outreach: An O.C. clergyman helps ensure that dead, unclaimed newborns get a funeral--and a name.

October 23, 1995|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were babies who died alone.

One was a boy, perhaps 1 1/2 days old, whose tiny body was left in the trunk of his mother's car. His cause of death is unknown.

Two other newborns, both girls, washed ashore on Orange County beaches the same week. Another girl was found stillborn in a toilet, and the body of an infant boy was left in a cardboard box in a parking lot.

All five were nameless, homeless. Even their birthdays remain a mystery.

To Father Patrick Callahan, these abandoned little people deserve some refuge, a proper burial and someone to care about them.

"Our belief is that these were human beings whose lives should be honored," said Callahan, an American Catholic priest and psychologist who started Children of the Ark, an ecumenical ministry that organizes funerals for Baby Does who go unclaimed at the county morgue.

"We should not dispose of them as though they are things. My hope is to show people these kids were once here."

Callahan, who works with abused youngsters in South-Central Los Angeles, started the ministry in April after reading about the first three babies, who were found dead within four days.

Two newborn girls were discovered with their umbilical cords still attached in Newport Beach and Sunset Beach. The body of a third child, a boy less than a week old, was found dumped in a San Clemente parking lot.

The string of deaths baffled investigators at the Orange County coroner's office as they struggled to track the children's relatives. No one came forward. Except Callahan, an associate pastor at St. Matthew American Catholic Church in Orange.

He petitioned for guardianship of the three bodies, instead of leaving them to be cremated by the county. The priest gave the babies names--the girls found on the beach were Angelica and Ariel, the boy in the cardboard box was Michael--and then held a joint funeral service in July.

Since then, Callahan has buried two other babies--Matthew, the boy found in the trunk of his mother's car in Fullerton, and Gabriela, the stillborn girl found in a Stanton toilet. He is planning a service for four other abandoned youngsters in November, two from Orange County and two others who died in Los Angeles County.

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"We're limiting our work to abandoned infants," said Callahan, who lives in Yorba Linda and works as an educational psychologist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "But I hope a day will come when we can do more than that--when we can help bury all children who have been abandoned in Orange and Los Angeles counties."

Coroners who have handled Baby Doe cases say they often have little success in shedding light on the deaths of such newborns, whose lives often lasted just a few hours or days.

"Infants don't have identifiable characteristics," said Richard Rodriguez, a supervising Orange County deputy coroner. "We have no record of their fingerprints or footprints."

Deputy Coroner Jane M. Thompson said these are the most difficult and draining cases for her.

"It's harder for me personally to deal with these cases," said Thompson, a mother of three children. "These babies did nothing to deserve the circumstances that surrounded their deaths. It's very sad.

"I have seen how fragile and dependent babies are. How receptive they are to a little love and care. And it breaks my heart when people just dump them like trash."

Unlike some other cases, investigators know the identity of the woman who gave birth to baby Matthew, who was perhaps 1 1/2 days old when his body was discovered in the trunk of his mother's car in August.

The baby had no name. The mother, identified by investigators as a drug abuser, had been convicted of felony charges for abandoning a previous baby in 1992. After Matthew was found dead, she relinquished her guardianship over his body.

But Matthew will never be forgotten by the Orange County couple who had adopted his two older sisters--and gave him a name after his death.

Teri and Marty, who asked that their last names be withheld to protect their children, gained custody of the two girls in 1991 and 1992 after the birth mother gave them up for adoption. The adoptive parents, who have five children of their own, learned of Matthew's existence after returning from a summer vacation.

"I broke down and cried when I read about it in the paper," said Teri, 33, describing the loss she felt.

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"It was like being hit by a drunk driver. Then you wake up in the hospital and the doctor tells you that you've lost your baby when you didn't even know you were pregnant."

Teri said her daughters have blood ties to Matthew. "He's someone who will have an effect on our daughters in the future. It may not be tomorrow or next week. But perhaps in 10 years," she said.

The couple helped Callahan with the funeral for Matthew and Gabriela, the stillborn baby whose family had never claimed the body.

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