Born to Live, Left to Die – A Look at Baby Abandonment Laws

Baby girl chewing fingers

Frederica Mathewes-Green, Author and Columnist for Christianity Today and Beliefnet.com


Call it Sudden Infant Dumping Syndrome — newborns found in parking lots, supermarkets and trash cans. Can new “baby abandonment” laws reverse the trend?

She wrapped her baby boy in a crib sheet with a cuddly baseball motif. He wore an angel necklace and a felt diaper. Carefully she laid him where someone was sure to find him, near a parked car, about 200 feet from the entrance to Indianapolis Community Hospital.

It was snowy and flakes settled around the squirming child. No one heard his voice, and the cries gradually grew weaker. Finally, a woman who came out to smoke a cigarette spotted the tiny bundle in the snow.

By then it was too late. Only a little further and the mother could have stepped inside the warm hospital and handed her baby to a medical worker, then fled to avoid questioning. But that would have been illegal. It’s called child abandonment. The only legal way for a mom to relinquish a child is through adoption, with all its papers and forms and interviews.

In decades past, women could conceal pregnancies by going to a maternity home in a different city and quietly place the child for adoption, with records permanently sealed. Today, as the stigma against unwed pregnancy has disappeared, so has this option.

Most adoptions are no longer anonymous, and some states have considered laws to unseal adoption records retroactively, even against the mother’s wishes. Abortion has become the most effective means to conceal a pregnancy, but there has emerged a second option: giving birth, then abandoning the baby.

Now picture a teen who has denied and concealed a pregnancy for nine months, then undergoes the ordeal of birth, perhaps all alone. The squalling infant terrifies her and all she can think of is getting away from this helpless bundle of demands as fast as possible. In the best of cases, she wants the child to survive and be cared for by someone else.

The mom in Indianapolis apparently felt that way and left her baby well-swaddled in a public place. She made the best plan she could. It just wasn’t good enough.

Stories like this keep piling up at the rate of about a hundred a year. (That’s only the stories reported in the media; no public agencies keep record.) Public awareness spiked in 1996, when a pair of college students in Delaware tossed their newborn in a Dumpster. Soon after, a New Jersey prom-goer stuffed hers in a bathroom wastebasket and went back to the dance.

Since then, the number of abandoned babies has only increased. They’re found in portable toilets and on railroad tracks and squirming behind the diapers on a grocery store shelf. Sometimes they’re found in time to be loved and adopted – but no doubt many are never found at all.

No Questions Asked

Enough stories like this and people start getting a little frantic. From coast to coast, state legislators have been asking: What’s causing this alarming trend? How can we stop it?

One idea: soften laws prosecuting mothers for child abandonment, as long as they take the child to a designated safe place. This is what the Texas State Legislature did in September 1999, after 13 abandoned babies were found in the Houston area in a 10-month period. While baby abandonment is still prosecutable in the state, the new law offers an affirmative defense to the woman who goes to a hospital or fire station and hands her baby to an emergency medical services provider, as long as the baby has not been abused and is less than 30 days old.

In Mobile, Ala., the law goes one step further: zero risk of prosecution and no questions asked if the child is brought in within three days of birth and has not been abused.

The idea is catching on. In the recent legislative session, 27 states considered: amending their child-abandonment laws.

Would such laws make any difference? A lot of women might be too confused, careless or drug-addled to respond to such an invitation. But there may be a few morns for whom such a legal respite would make a life-saving difference. Perhaps the mom of the baby in the parking lot would have been one of them.

Publicizing the change in the law is crucial. In Houston’s Harris County, 75 billboards went up urging, “Don’t Abandon Your Baby!” and listing a toll-free number.

“We want to give moms a last chance to do the right thing, and avoid the Dumpster phenomenon,” said Judy Hay, information officer of Harris County, Texas, Child Protection Services.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of such efforts. Since the law’s passage, two more abandoned babies have been found alive, both in places where the mother apparently expected them to be found swiftly and safely. Neither case, however, met the law’s criterion of handing the babies to medical personnel.

And the toll-free number? “There have been about 450 calls to the hotline since it began on Dec. 21,” said Joel Levine, director of the hotline project. “About 20 have been counseling calls” — for information about pregnancy options — “but there have been no crises calls from someone at the point of delivery. All the rest have been calls from the media, [and] from people wanting to adopt or just to help.”

The media have proven helpful in publicizing the new law, and whenever a baby is found alive there are usually news stories expressing relief. Yet Hay wonders if even this might have an undesired effect, that of giving moms the impression that public abandonment will bring a happy ending to their problems. In the most recent case, on April 16, two girls found a baby in a car seat near the leasing office of a rental complex.

“People need to keep in mind that a stray dog might have found the baby before they did,” Hay said.

A Tragic Necessity?

While proponents of such laws have only hope, not proof, of positive effects, some opponents fear the legislation could have unintended consequences. Mark Washburn, until recently the director of California’s conservative Capitol Resource Institute, contended that baby-abandonment laws “encourage a mother to abandon the child” and “create dysfunctional women who years down the road will still be dealing with the trauma of what happened in their lives.”

Last year, about 120 babies were lost nationwide, Washburn said, “a huge tragedy, but not justification for creating another statewide bureaucracy” or extending the powers of Child Protective Services.

Among those who question the laws, few oppose them outright. After all, the laws do not approve abandonment; they merely offer incentives for desperate women to choose life over death for a newborn. Since pro-lifers have consistently opposed laws to punish the woman who has an abortion (arguing that laws should instead target abortion businesses), it makes sense not to punish a woman who preserves the life of her child and surrenders him safely.

Broad bipartisan support is typical. For example, the Texas law is a result of cooperation between Republican state legislator Geanie Morrison and Democrat U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.

As the laws spread among the states, policymakers still must wrestle with how to implement them:

– Does the father know the mother is abandoning the baby? Does he even know he is a father? What about his rights? In Bellmead, Texas, a young woman concealed her pregnancy from everyone, delivered in a bathtub, and placed the baby on the porch of a family home nearby. The new Texas law does not permit this, and the woman will probably be placed on probation; her rights to the baby have been terminated. But the baby’s father, astonished to learn of the child’s existence, has applied for custody, and Child Protective Services is investigating.

– Is this woman really the baby’s mother? The child might have been kidnapped or stolen by someone wanting revenge on the mother. “Either way, that baby is going to be better off with medical personnel,” says Detective Thomas Noble of the Bellmead, Texas, police force. “If that child has been abducted, it’s already in a dangerous situation. If someone has a change of heart, that’s good.” Found babies are reported widely in the media, so a worried mom could be reunited with her baby swiftly.

– How old can the child be? Two states would allow children as old as 24 months, while six would limit the age to just 72 hours. Will a medical worker actually refuse an “overage” baby?

– What if the mother wants to reclaim the baby later on? The Minnesota bill would give identification bands to mother and infant. These would not establish maternity, paternity, or custody, but would grant the adult possessing a bracelet standing to pursue custody, as long as parental rights have not been terminated.

– Do such laws give the appearance of approving child abandonment? How will that affect society long-term?

All of these are difficult questions with no easy answers. While no one is viewing these laws as a great step forward for civilization, many thoughtful people are concluding that they are a tragic necessity — if they save one life, they’re worth it. But that brings us to the final, stubborn questions: Why do women do this? What can possibly be done to stop them?

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Judy Hay has met a few post-abandonment mothers, and “felt for them a lot.” The girls would recount a story of determined avoidance of their situation until it was too late, which “gave me a whole new perspective on denial,” Hay said. “They viewed [the baby] as something to get rid of. Their language was very detached.”

Hay pointed out that research on baby abandonment is nonexistent because these mothers typically prefer anonymity. It’s hard to know what motivates these women, so that new laws, and the publicizing of such laws, might be fine-tuned.

One theory is that the moms are drug addicts, but Hay said the babies recovered in Houston have not tested positive for drugs. Some theorize that women abandoning babies are impoverished and desperate, but others counter that an unplanned pregnancy is more acceptable among the poor than among the upper classes, where a young woman might be terrified to tell her parents of her mistake.

Richard Wessler, head of psychology at Pace University in New York, said teenage moms are generally immature at problem-solving, and their primary impulse is to get away from the babies — “out of sight, out of mind.”

“There’s little thought for the consequences,” Wessler said, “and no realization that the infant they’ve just given birth to is a real-live human being.”

In the April 2000 issue of Jane magazine, Linda Brakefield recounts her own tragic experience. Four years ago, Linda says, her daughter Casey concealed a pregnancy, gave birth in Linda’s bathroom, and carried the newborn out of the house in a duffel bag. Casey went to an older sister’s house, where a few days later Linda was invited to come and meet the granddaughter she had no idea she had.

But two years later the story repeated itself, with a bitter twist. As before, Linda noticed her daughter putting on weight and asked if she was pregnant, and again Casey denied it. Linda pleaded, “I’m here for you — come on,” but Casey kept insisting, “There is no baby.”

One day Casey came home wearing tight jeans and asked her morn, “Don’t I look great?”

Linda was horrified and asked where the baby was. “Leave me alone,” Casey said. So Linda called the police.

It took six hours of interrogation. Casey had given birth to a boy, wrapped him in plastic, and left him in her car for a couple of days. Then she retrieved him and threw him in a dumpster.

That evening, the police found the body.

“I had to hold him,” Linda said, crying. “It may sound gross to other people, but I sat there and watched this baby growing inside her, and I had to hold him.”

Casey served seven months in jail, where she was diagnosed as having a “narcissistic personality.” Casey describes her jail time as “a party,” and her mother says she has never shown remorse.

Is such a case typical? Who knows? In the absence of research, all we can know is that some women feel a strong impulse to get away from their babies quickly, permanently and anonymously.

The question is: Will she place him in the arms of a nurse, or throw him in a Dumpster? Can abandonment laws affect such a decision? Can billboards and hotlines? In the midst of a situation of horror and tragedy, terrible questions arise. Legislators are just beginning to work out the answers.

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