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Few Babies Are Finding 'Safe Haven'

Abandonments of newborns persist despite the passage of laws in more than 40 states.

March 10, 2003|Jessica Garrison | 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.

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