Cover Story

Sanctioning cruelty or saving children?

The ancient Romans practiced "exposure," leaving their unwanted babies outside to die. Early Christians rescued many. Will history repeat itself?

Issue: "Dumpsters or hospitals?," June 24, 2000

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.

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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.

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