Rock-A-Baby Bye-Bye

A state program was supposed to give moms a safe place to drop off unwanted newborns. Then why are so many babies still ending up in the trash?

Clarissa Santana spreads a bath towel on the blue carpet, takes off her boxers and lies down on the love seat. Biting down on a throw pillow, she stifles her screams, trying not to wake her mother and her 16-month-old son sleeping in the next room. In labor ten hours when Jeremiah was born, she thinks she can drive herself to the hospital. But the contractions are coming too close -- the time she was counting on isn't there. She delivers the baby by herself in the living room.

Around 4 a.m. Clarissa stumbles outside wearing her pink Mickey Mouse sleep shirt. The 19-year-old lives in Crabb, Texas, an empty area six miles outside Richmond. Her pink-and-orange trailer is at the end of Gonyo Road, an unpaved street with fields of broken barns and buttercups.

She walks across the cinder drive and lays her seven-pound son on the grass so her mother won't hear him cry. She rips the umbilical cord; it falls apart in her hands. Overcome with nausea, and covered in blood, Clarissa runs inside to the bathroom. She sits in the shower, thinking she'll rest a minute, then drive the baby to the hospital, legally leave him in the emergency room, and come home. She plans to take Jeremiah to day care, go to work, and no one will ever know about her second pregnancy.

Deron Neblett
Clarissa was afraid officers would take her older son, Jeremiah.
Wendy Grossman
Clarissa was afraid officers would take her older son, Jeremiah.

At daybreak, she hears a nearby lawn mower. She rushes to her bedroom window and sees her 72-year-old grandfather, Manuel Zamora, riding his green John Deere LX173. Horrified, she watches as the blades get closer and closer to the baby. She sees her grandfather glance in the direction of the baby and prays he'll turn around.

Zamora thinks it's a toy one of the neighbors' kids left on the lawn. Then he sees it move. Zamora picks up the bloody baby boy and carries him into the trailer. Clarissa sinks down onto her bed and thinks to herself that her life is ruined.

Clarissa walks out of her bedroom into the hallway. She stays in the far corner of the living room, not looking at the baby or her grandfather.

He hands the newborn to her grandmother and says he can't imagine why anyone would leave an infant in a field full of fire ants and chicken snakes.

Her mother, Maria Santana, asks Clarissa if any of the neighborhood girls were pregnant.

No, she says.

Her grandfather asks if it's hers.

No, she says.

Her grandmother says they should adopt the baby, but her grandfather says, "No, we better let the police handle it" and calls 911.

Fort Bend County sheriff's deputies find the placenta under the porch and blood in the bathroom.

We think we know what happened here, officers tell Clarissa. Why don't you go ahead and tell us?

Afraid the officers will take away her older son and she would spend her life in prison, Clarissa stays quiet.

The officers tell her if they have to test the DNA of every girl in the neighborhood, it's going to waste a lot of money, and they're going to find out the truth.

Around dinnertime, Clarissa confesses. "What will my punishment be?" she asks. "Do I have to tell my family?"

Because the baby didn't die, Clarissa was charged with child endangerment, a second-degree felony, and sentenced to ten years of probation and 240 hours of community service.

The "safe haven" law, which allows mothers to legally leave infants in a safe place, was passed to keep abandoned babies alive. Originally, the law also provided the mother a legal defense if she was arrested and charged with child endangerment. It has since been modified, so that now, if a mother follows the law -- and doesn't harm the baby -- she is exempt from prosecution.

In the last two years, nearly 100 newborns have been illegally discarded in Texas. Only five have been abandoned according to the law.

Already this year, three babies have been illegally abandoned in Houston. None of them was left in a safe place -- and one was discovered too late. On a cloudy February morning, a baby girl's corpse was found in a muddy roadside ditch near Willowbrook High School. Her body lay atop a bloated, maggot-covered dead dog; the umbilical cord was still attached.

Advocates of the law say it simply needs more advertising. But as babies continue to be abandoned in unsafe places, critics say the law isn't working and more billboards aren't going to help.

Three years ago, Houston made national news when 13 babies were abandoned in ten months.

"The babies just kept coming and coming," says Children's Protective Services spokesperson Judy Hay. "When we had six by February, I was alarmed."

About half of them died. At the time, Hay said she hoped it was an anomaly, a fluke, a copycat crime that would never happen again. When Hay called other cities and other states, she discovered that more than two a year was considered an avalanche. Babies were found in trash cans, in the middle of the street, in a flower bed, a hospital bathroom and outside the Holiday Inn. "Something needed to be done," says Curtis Mooney, executive director of DePelchin Children's Center.

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