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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

Saving Babies From Making the Unwanted List

January 11, 2002|DANA PARSONS

Since childhood, when she'd hold the spittoon while her father worked on the teeth of Mexican orphans, Debbe Magnusen knew that not all children catch a break in this world.

And here she is, having turned 46 this week, spending much of her waking life for the last five years running a national organization out of a Costa Mesa office that tries to give infants a fighting chance.

The odds can be formidable.

Providing free dental work is one thing. Magnusen's quest is to keep infants from being discarded in Dumpsters, toilets, bushes or on strangers' doorsteps.

To most of us, abandoning a newborn is unthinkable. Spend a little time with Magnusen and her co-worker, Angel Waters, a woman in her 20s, and you'll think otherwise.

Telephone calls come in from all over the country. They come in broad daylight and in the middle of the night.

Since mid-December, Waters says, they've handled 68 calls from girls lamenting their unwanted pregnancies. You'd think these girls, almost all teenagers, would notify Magnusen early in the pregnancy. It doesn't always work that way.

"We had one girl who said she saw us on TV and said she had delivered at home and asked if I could meet her," Magnusen says. "She told me to head for Garden Grove and she'd tell me where to go on the way there."

Eventually, Magnusen met the girl at the bleachers of a local high school, where she handed her an infant wrapped in a towel. Magnusen took the girl and baby to a local hospital.

Magnusen's operation (consisting of her and Waters and a network of 35 volunteer phone operators) is called Project Cuddle.

It began as a group that provided toys but since 1996 has concentrated on persuading frightened or uncaring young girls not to abandon their babies.

Magnusen's efforts have been fueled by her appearances on daytime programs such as those hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams, as well as mainstream media coverage on programs such as CBS' "48 Hours."

Nearly 400 babies have been saved from abandonment and, most likely, death, according to Magnusen's records.

It is a pace that would wear out both Magnusen and Waters, they say, if the outcomes weren't so rewarding.

"I couldn't do it if Angel weren't here," Magnusen says, getting a bit teary as she discusses her friend working across the room. "I used to have to do it 24/7. If I took a shower, I'd have to have the phone by the shower. I couldn't have the door shut."

The job was nonstop, she says, because unwanted pregnancies continue unabated in America. It's hard to find statistics on abandoned babies--obviously, no one can be sure how many babies are never discovered--but a number of states have passed laws making it easier for young mothers to leave unwanted babies at hospitals without facing punishment.

That followed a spate of publicity about "Dumpster babies" that made headlines. The Project Cuddle hotline is (888) 628-3353. People who might want to volunteer can find the local number in the phone book.

Magnusen, who throughout our interview wore a headset in case the phone rang and filled envelopes for a fund-raiser, now faces another problem.

The lease on her Costa Mesa office has expired. The operation has depended on private donors and an annual fund-raising dinner to pay bills. (This year's will be March 22 in Newport Beach.) But Magnusen longs for a corporate sponsor that would provide office space. She also needs two more employees, she says.

If not . . . life goes on.

"Our dream is to be a household name," Magnusen says. "I knew from the day I started this, it was going to be big."

I ask how she and Angel handle the workload. "We just do it," Magnusen says. "There's no option. For the sake of the baby, you just do it."

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821; by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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