Two weeks ago, 41 little white crosses stood sentinel there, reaching toward heaven. This week there are 43.
On June 10, two baby girls, Serafina and Vidalia, were lowered into the cool earth of the Garden of Angels, a cemetery within a cemetery in Yucaipa, Calif. Each baby died on the day she was born. Someone dropped Vidalia into a Dumpster. Someone stuffed Serafina in a black trash bag and left her at a playground, where three children stumbled upon the plastic tomb. Southern California police detectives who investigated their deaths gave each baby her name. The detective who handled Vidalia's case joined 75 other strangers who cared at the babies' funeral service. Many wept as they mourned two little girls whose only swaddling clothes were the satin linings of two tiny coffins.
The Garden of Angels is an oasis of dignity for children abandoned and left to die anonymous deaths. Debi Faris, a Yucaipa homemaker, founded it in 1996 after hearing of an abandoned baby boy found dead near Los Angeles. She retrieved his body from the county coroner and, with her own money, bought a little grave plot at Desert Lawn Cemetery to bury him in. She named the boy Matthew. She didn't name the gravesite, though, because she never expected to bury another abandoned child. But by November 1999, working with various law-enforcement and medical agencies, she had buried 39 more children, and wanted to do something more-something to short-circuit the rising baby death toll.
Last November, Ms. Faris proposed legislation for California designed to encourage mothers in crisis to turn their babies over to emergency medical workers in hospitals instead of abandoning them. The measure would, if the baby were less than 72 hours old, make such abandonment both legal and completely anonymous. Ms. Faris's proposal, now pending in the Golden State legislature, is part of a growing national drive to provide safe havens for babies who might otherwise be abandoned.
Ms. Faris patterned her legislative proposal after a baby-abandonment law signed into law last September by Texas Governor George Bush. Over a 10-month period ending in mid-1999, Houston residents found 13 discarded babies. Three of the 13 were found dead. While stunned child-welfare officials launched a public-awareness campaign that implored women not to abandon their babies, legislators also rushed into action. They drafted a law that would help people abandoning newborns avoid prosecution if they turned the infants over to hospital personnel.
The Texas law was the first of its kind in modern American history. Five more states-Alabama, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia-have followed suit, passing laws that decriminalize safe baby drop-offs and provide anonymity for the person doing the dropping. Similar laws are pending in at least 28 states.
Each state's legislation varies slightly, but the theme of anonymity runs through all. In California, a person turning over a child would be issued a special identification bracelet and could return to reclaim the infant within 14 days while still remaining anonymous. In Minnesota, a mother could leave a baby without identifying herself, but would have to work with child-welfare officials in order to reclaim her child.
These laws are "a safety net under these babies," said Ms. Faris, 44. "We want every woman ... to know that it will not be against the law for her to turn her baby over to hospital workers. We want her to surrender her child into loving arms."
It's unclear how many newborns are abandoned each year in the United States, though the total seems to be rising. Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cites media reports of 105 infants abandoned in "public places" in 1998. A third of those were found dead. In 1991, the only other recent year for which the government compiled figures, 65 infants were abandoned in public places, and eight of these were found dead.
Last month, Kelly Angell, a 20-year-old honor student, left her baby for dead at Boston's Logan Airport. After she gave birth in a ladies room stall, Ms. Angell left her baby boy floating in a toilet and returned to the terminal area to wait for a flight to London. Moments later, an airport cleaning woman discovered the child and bolted from the bathroom screaming "Baby! Baby!" in both Spanish and English. Clifford Tabin, a Harvard medical professor, ran into the bathroom and, working with a pediatric anesthesiologist who was providentially present, saved the baby's life. Ms. Angell is no undergoing psychiatric evaluation, and the baby is in a foster home.
Such cases help build support for abandonment legislation from across the ideological spectrum. Numerous law-enforcement and child-welfare agencies back the California legislation, as do the California Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood, which are normally enemies. Supporters say that legalizing anonymous, safe drop-offs will give mothers in crisis a new alternative.
"Frequently we have babies having babies ... and they panic," said state Rep. Ann Dandrow (R-Southington), who sponsored Connecticut legislation decriminalizing hospital drop-offs. "If they knew of other options, they would take them."
Representatives of an Alabama program, the "Secret Safe Place for Newborns," say they've saved five babies from abandonment by offering anonymous infant drop-offs (see sidebar).
Opponents of new abandonment laws say they won't help, and offer as evidence several more babies dangerously abandoned in Texas since the new law's advent. Two were found dead; none was turned over to emergency medical personnel. But the law has not been widely publicized outside of Houston and it's too early to tell what long-term results will be.
Lori Larson of Project Cuddle, a California nonprofit that has rescued 155 babies since 1996, does not support the new laws. Project Cuddle works with girls and women who are pregnant as a result of date rape or incest and call the group's emergency hotline. "Until you really start talking to these girls, you can't understand their emotional state," Ms. Larson said. "They've denied the pregnancy all the way through. They don't look at the baby as their child, but as the product of a horrible experience, as a problem to be gotten rid of."
Project Cuddle and other opponents raise questions about possible complications in anonymous legal abandonment: What if a baby is dropped off at a hospital against his or her mother's will? Does the birth mother still have a right to her child? What if a birth father later emerges to claim the baby? What if hospitals become a dumping ground for infants with birth defects?
Others say the trend toward legal abandonment stops short of considering children's futures. All new legislation so far stipulates that hospital workers must turn abandoned infants over to the state's child-welfare agency. Conna Craig, president of the Institute for Children (a Boston-based policy research organization on foster-care issues) fears such children will be trapped in what she sees as a failing national foster-care system, while social workers attempt to locate and rehabilitate birth mothers.
Government social services "can't handle what's on their plates already," Ms. Craig said. She says she is "on the fence" regarding the legal trend: "Policy blueprints have got to seal the loopholes through which real babies will fall if we allow ourselves to quickly pass new legislation as a one-size-fits-all solution." She wants abandonment legislation to involve private adoption agencies as alternatives to the state.
Dallas-area small business owner and adoptee Deb McAlister is concerned about anonymity under the new law. She was abandoned near a church and eventually adopted, but did not know that she might pass along to her descendants a congenital heart defect. A granddaughter was born with that defect and suffered two strokes that left her brain damaged and partially paralyzed. Ms. McAlister worries that if anonymous legal abandonment becomes common, many more adoptees will have no medical history records.
But supporters of the laws say saving a baby's life trumps the desire to know the mother's identity or medical history. "We'd rather have a baby with no medical history delivered to an emergency medical technician than a baby with no medical history found in a Dumpster," said Justin Unruh, a spokesman for the Baby Moses Project, a Texas nonprofit group set up to publicize safe legal abandonment as an alternative to baby-dumping.
Debi Faris agrees: "If it's a choice of having an alive baby or a dead baby, is the mother's name and history that important? I just know these babies' lives are too valuable to throw away."