When mothers discard their babies

SUN JOURNAL

Prevention: Little is known about why some women abandon or harm their infants, but several cities are trying to tackle the problem.

January 14, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

In Denver, an infant girl is found on a grocery store shelf, umbilical cord attached. In Alexandria, Va., the body of a newborn languishes on an apartment patio, left by her 25-year-old mother on a cold, rainy night. In Houston, an infant lies dead in a high school trash bin, one of 13 babies abandoned last year in a city that typically sees one or two annually.

Little is known about "discarded babies," those left in rivers, woods, trash bins -- places other than hospital maternity wards. Typically, authorities group them together with other child abuse and neglect cases, so no one knows how many there are or if their numbers are growing.

Now, with a rash of cases in Houston in the past year and other highly publicized cases around the country, communities are coming up with unconventional solutions to a very old problem.

In Minnesota, a program began last week that allows mothers to anonymously drop off infants at a hospital within 72 hours of giving birth and avoid prosecution if the child is unharmed. Social service workers find a foster home and arrange for adoption; the mother may reclaim the baby within six months. Organizers plan to use a hot line, public service announcements and brochures in schools and churches.

"The idea is to prevent a crime before it happens," said the Rev. Andrew Cozzens, assistant pastor at The Cathedral of St. Paul, which launched the pilot program with three Dakota County hospitals.

The program is modeled after one in Mobile, Ala., which has come to the aid of four babies in the 14 months since it began, said Jodi Brooks, a local TV reporter who came up with the idea. Nineteen infant deaths were investigated in the two-county area in the 18 months before the program started; none have been discovered since, Brooks said.

In the Houston area, where 13 babies were found discarded in the 10 months ending in September, a task force has organized an information campaign that urges mothers not to abandon their babies and publicizes a new state law protecting mothers who want to leave their babies at hospitals or fire stations.

Officials have also applied for a grant to research how mothers come to abandon their infants. The reasons are largely a mystery, because so few mothers come forward. Of the 13 recent cases in Houston, only four mothers were found -- three of them teen-agers, one in her 20s. All were unmarried and lived with their families, none of which knew of the pregnancies, said Judy Hay, a spokeswoman for Harris County Children's Protective Services.

Three of the babies were found dead, two of them stillborn. Police say the third, discovered in a high school trash bin, suffered multiple blows to the head, and the 15-year-old mother is being prosecuted as an adult on a murder charge. Other babies in the Houston cases had been left in a hospital bathroom, on a front porch, on a city street, outside hospitals, in a hotel and on the grounds of an elementary school.

Hay, who has spoken with a number of such mothers over her 29 years in her job, said these pregnancies are crises that threaten the young mothers' relationship with their families as well as their education and their futures.

"The girls were denying it, even to themselves," Hay said. "One said her grandmother had sacrificed a great deal to put her through college and she was going to ruin everything. It's a catastrophe in their mind. And when they do have the baby, they don't perceive it as a human being. It's something to get rid of, like trash."

Aside from the obvious medical risks to an abandoned newborn, Hay said, "that person grows up with that wrenching question: Who am I? What's my medical history? What's my ethnic background? -- basic information that every adult should have. And there's nothing we can do to help them with that kind of pain."

The Mobile program got started when Brooks, a television reporter, decided she had covered too many cases of abandoned babies. In Wisconsin, in the mid-1990s, she reported on a teen-ager who put her newborn in a knapsack and left it in a garage through the winter, where it was discovered the next summer. On her first week on the job in Mobile, Brooks covered the trial of a mother and grandmother from an upper middle-class family who were convicted of drowning a newborn in a toilet.

Brooks saw desperate women panic and commit crimes, then avoid coming forward because they faced felony charges.

"I cover crime, rape, kidnapping. This is one where I understood the crime," Brooks said. "They're scared. They don't know what to do. Let's help them."

She approached John Tyson, the Mobile County district attorney, who agreed not to prosecute such cases when infants are unharmed. Hospitals and social service agencies signed on to provide treatment and find foster homes, and the local media blitzed the community with public service announcements.

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