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?

William Pierce, former president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption, says that no matter how much the law is promoted, there will still be people who live in the woods, don't have cable and don't hear about it -- or just use bad judgment.

"None of us ever said that if we had these laws in every state that there would be no babies that would die. Our goal is to try to save at least one baby," Pierce says. "It's a great example of a grassroots movement that has had some very modest goals -- save a baby here and there -- and we have."

During the last legislative session, the law was amended and expanded to give mothers more options. Since babies were being left outside or near hospitals, the law was modified so Houston babies can be abandoned in emergency rooms or at DePelchin, where a nurse is on duty 24 hours, as well as at fire stations. Originally, babies had to be younger than 30 days old, but the law now gives mothers another month.

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

The law was once a defense from prosecution. Now, if the mother abandons the baby according to the law, she is exempt from prosecution. "If you do it, the law will not be applied to you," says Denise Oncken, assistant district attorney and chief of the child abuse division of the Harris County district attorney's office.

If the baby appears to be more than two months old, injured, bruised or abused in any way, the mother can still be prosecuted. "It doesn't guarantee complete immunity," Oncken says. If a baby is abandoned in a way that places it in "imminent danger of death" (like being dropped in the middle of the Katy Freeway), it's a second-degree felony, and the mother can get two to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the baby is abandoned and the parent intends to return (telling the baby-sitter she will be back in an hour, when really she plans to be gone for the weekend), the parent can be sentenced to up to two years in state jail. If the baby is abandoned and the parent doesn't intend to ever come back, then it's a third-degree felony punishable with two to ten years in prison.

If the baby dies, it's murder. "It's the same as going out and shooting someone," says Sergeant John Swaim of HPD homicide. The parent can be charged with either injury to a child or capital murder, depending on the circumstances.

Only eight states' laws require officials to track how many babies have been abandoned, to examine effectiveness. Texas isn't one of them. Since data hasn't been officially collected, George Ford, executive director of CPS, says it can't be proven that the law does or does not work.

There's no proof that the mothers who have used the law would have ditched their children in Dumpsters, says Katie Pollock, program manager for adolescent sexuality, pregnancy prevention and parenting for the Child Welfare League of America. Perhaps these mothers would have created adoption plans, or maybe, if they hadn't heard of the law, they wouldn't have abandoned their babies at all.

"We just don't know," Pollock says. "The only way to gauge that would be to talk to the people, and that goes completely against the intent of the laws."

Ford wants to interview all Houston-area mothers who abandoned their babies and ask them why they abandoned the child, and what would have to have been different in their lives to have kept them from discarding their babies. But not every mother has been found, and he can't get funding to talk to the mothers they've located.

"Nobody knows what we're up against or why," Hay says.

In the meantime, Ford says, the baby abandonment hot line needs more publicity.

"Nobody's using our hot line," Hay says. "That really worries me. I'm just always afraid."

The hot line has received more than 700 calls. All but 40 were from people looking for information about adopting abandoned infants. Not a single mother has called and said she was considering abandoning her baby.

Watching the evening news, Clarissa learned about the safe haven law. She says her family "freaked out" when she got pregnant the first time. Her brother told her to have an abortion, and her boyfriend said the baby wasn't his.

Since her boyfriend didn't want to help pay for Jeremiah's diapers, much less change them, Clarissa didn't think her boyfriend would help her with a second child. She didn't want to ask her mother for money, because her mother doesn't have it.

Being Roman Catholic, Clarissa couldn't bring herself to abort the baby. She made $7.58 an hour as her uncle's secretary at Enron, and she didn't think that was enough to support two kids.

"I didn't have any other way out," she says.

She hadn't lost weight from her first pregnancy, so Clarissa kept wearing her size 14 maternity clothes and no one noticed. She ate extra vegetables and vitamin C and tried not to lift anything heavy.

After her grandfather called 911, CPS wanted to take custody of Clarissa's 16-month-old son, Jeremiah James. But Clarissa's mother became his legal guardian.

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