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?

"The law doesn't work at all," Davis says. "It doesn't deal with the problem -- it's just another way of legalizing abandonment. You have a baby that's safe -- but what about the mother? What happens if she gets pregnant again and again? Who's really addressing the issue of why she's abandoning the baby in the first place?"

Fear is the No. 1 reason mothers abandon their babies, says James Maddux, vice president for programs at the Healthy Family Initiative. Davis was afraid her grandparents would cut her off if she brought the baby home. Other women, Maddux says, are afraid of hospitals, authority figures, being arrested (some already have criminal records), being deported or having older children taken from them.

"The law was a good idea," Maddux says. "But I was never a great believer that it was going to solve the problem."

Maria Santana takes Jordan to visit his great-grandfather.
Deron Neblett
Maria Santana takes Jordan to visit his great-grandfather.
Maria Santana takes Jordan to visit his great-grandfather.
Deron Neblett
Maria Santana takes Jordan to visit his great-grandfather.

Like Davis, he argues that mothers need early intervention. Unfortunately, there isn't an identifiable risk group or a set checklist of warning signs that a woman will abandon her baby. Davis lectures high school students, but teens afraid of getting grounded for life aren't the only ones abandoning babies. Many women, Maddux says, are in their thirties, already have one child, and don't have the cash to feed and clothe another kid. Both groups are fairly secretive and socially isolated, Maddux says, and it's hard to find people who are hiding.

The law itself might deter mothers from leaving babies in safe places, says Debbe Magnusen, founder of Project Cuddle, a California-based organization that works to prevent baby abandonment. Half of the women she works with were in foster care, or adopted themselves, so they don't trust lawmakers and the system, she says. Many are afraid of being caught on surveillance cameras and don't believe that the firefighter will let them leave.

Most women who abandon their babies don't care that it's illegal to leave a baby alone in a Dumpster, Maddux says. Many of them think of the baby not as a person but as a problem. "All they're thinking is 'How do I get off the hook that I'm on?' " he says.

One way is for no one to know that the baby was born. Babies delivered outside hospitals are difficult to document. Family-support caseworkers report to Maddux that parteras, or midwives, are often summoned to deliver illegal immigrants' babies in Houston. Ineligible for Medicare, illegal immigrants would have to receive indigent care at a hospital, he says. "Which in their opinion puts them at risk of being reported or deported," Maddux says. So they hire midwives.

"There are no real birth records," Maddux says. "The county doesn't even know these babies exist -- and if they then decide to get rid of them, murder them and dispose of their bodies, no one would be the wiser."

Which is probably what Maria Del Carmen Rodriguez Gonzales thought last August. The 25-year-old went door-to-door in Austin, asking neighbors if they wanted her unborn baby. No one was interested, so she gave birth in her apartment and put the baby in a cardboard box. She left him in a field, where he died. Gonzales says she was raped by a man who smuggled her across the border from Mexico, then abandoned her. She was charged with a first-degree felony and detained by the INS.

"If you think you may be seized and deported, the last thing you're worried about is laws of abandonment," Maddux says. "These people want to stay out of the light."

Then there are women, like Davis, who just hope their pregnancy will go away if they ignore it, Magnusen says. They don't have abortions, because that would mean acknowledging the baby's presence and talking to someone about it.

"So many of them never really accept the pregnancy," Magnusen says.

A Houston woman called Magnusen, and during their conversation the woman was moaning every two minutes. "I was timing her," Magnusen says. She told the woman she was in labor, but the woman said she just didn't feel well, maybe she'd eaten some bad Mexican food. Magnusen convinced her to let a Project Cuddle volunteer stop by and say hello. The volunteer delivered the woman's baby in her bathtub.

It didn't hurt like this last time, the woman said.

No one knew she had previously been pregnant.

"We don't know where that baby is," Magnusen says.

When asked if the law is working, DePelchin's Mooney sighs. He clasps his hands together and sighs again.

It's a question he doesn't want to answer. Maybe it just needs more advertising, he says. Every advocate of the law says that if women don't know the law exists, then they can't use it.

"It's unfortunate that we still have the numbers we do," says George Ford, executive director of CPS. "This is something we would think is completely preventable, that shouldn't happen. But if the law's not working, it's because of a lack of awareness about the law."

The law's supporters maintain that it works because mothers have used it. When the law was written, Morrison's goal was to save one baby. Since five babies have been saved, the law is deemed a success.

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