By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
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.
Fort Worth pediatrician John Richardson approached state Representative Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, about creating a safe place for mothers to leave unwanted infants. Researching the proposal, Morrison discovered that no one records the number of babies abandoned. "There were no statistics," Morrison says. "All we could find out was what were in the newspaper articles." In 1998, the Department of Health and Human Services surveyed a handful of newspapers and declared that 108 babies had been abandoned nationally and that 33 had died. Those numbers are low, Morrison says, because they account for only the babies that were found or reported, and not every newspaper was searched. And searches of a newspaper's archives often can be inaccurate.
Morrison wrote the safe haven law, which said babies less than a month old could be left at a hospital or fire station in the arms of an emergency medical technician (which in essence means a firefighter, since not every hospital staffer is a trained EMT).
But even if the baby was unharmed and healthy, the district attorney still could prosecute the mother for child endangerment. "This is not a get-out-of-jail-free law, and it's not a no-questions-asked law," Hay said shortly after the law was passed. "Questions will have to be asked." The law just gave the mother's attorney a solid argument in court.
Morrison contended that the law would save two lives: that of the baby, who could be devoured by stray dogs, and of the mother, who could be locked up. House Bill 3423 passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, and then-governor George W. Bush signed it into law on June 6, 1999.
In theory, the law seemed like a really good idea -- an enlightened, proactive way to keep babies from dying in ditches. But critics argue that the law merely perpetuates the problem, promoting abandonment instead of other options. "It encourages irresponsibility," says Marley Greiner, executive chair of Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights organization. "They can just have this baby and get rid of it, and nobody will ever have to know. It's basically, 'This is our little secret.' "
Officials didn't want to advocate abandonment, but they wanted to keep babies alive. "People say, 'Let's set bassinets out in public so people can put their babies in them,' " Hay says. "No, no, no. Abandonment cannot be an option."
The law is a compromise, Mooney says. If a baby is going to be abandoned, at least it will live. Since the safe haven law was passed, 36 other states have patterned Baby Moses laws after the Texas bill. Each state law varies on where the infant can be left and how old the newborn can be, ranging from three days in California to one year in North Dakota. Some safe haven laws are merely legal defenses, while others grant mothers complete immunity.
The day the Texas law went into effect, 15-year-old Erika Enriquez went into labor. She delivered her baby in the ROTC bathroom at Scarborough High School in northwest Houston. To quiet the crying child, she placed it in the trash can. The baby girl was found dead in the school's Dumpster; Erika was arrested and charged with murder.
Already, the law wasn't working.
In the two weeks after the law went into effect, seven Texas babies were abandoned in unsafe places. Nearly a year after the law was passed, no mothers had taken advantage of it, despite the ad campaign launched by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The congresswoman announced the law in a televised commercial, and her 36-person Baby Abandonment Task Force plastered 75 billboards around Houston. A silhouette of a diapered Huggies baby stacks toy blocks to spell the word SAVE. In huge red letters, the sign screams, "Don't Abandon Your Baby!" In smaller letters, it offers the option of taking the child to an EMT at a fire station or a hospital and lists the baby abandonment hot line.
Still, the law was ignored.
When the legislation was passed, funds weren't allocated to promote it. "That's the biggest roadblock we ran into," says Morrison's aide, Justin Unruh, director of the Baby Moses Foundation. As babies continued to be abandoned and continued to die, Morrison and Richardson decided not to wait until the next legislative session to beg for funds. Instead, they created the Baby Moses Foundation to raise money to promote the law.
Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst donated more than $100,000 of his personal funds to launch the first ad campaign. In a 30-second commercial filmed in both English and Spanish, a teen mom is shown walking by a Dumpster holding a baby. She says she can't keep the baby and she doesn't know what else to do -- she feels like she doesn't have any other option. The camera pans to a fire station where the mother hands her baby to a big strong firefighter. Now, the baby is safe. A voice-over says, "If you can't do the best thing, do the right thing."
The commercial aired on the law's first anniversary. A week later, the first baby was safely abandoned. A 20-year-old woman delivered her child in an Austin hotel room, then called a local adoption agency that informed her about the law. She left the baby at Breckenridge Hospital's emergency room.
After CPS talked to the mother, she decided to keep the baby.
In Hamburg, Germany, clinics have built baby depositories into outside walls. A mother can place an infant in a heated, cushioned compartment, then walk away. An internal alarm sounds, alerting staff to the newborn, but authorities never search for the mother.
Morrison didn't want mothers to drop off babies like library books -- because after a solitary delivery, the mother might need medical attention herself. Plus, officials want to be able to ask the mother if she's willing to fill out a short medical history form so adoptive parents can know if the child is prone to diabetes or other diseases.
Still, the basic intent of the law is that a mother can anonymously leave her baby, know that the baby is safe, and go away. The problem is, this conflicts with both state and federal laws that require a "diligent search" for the mother and father before terminating parental rights.
"We really feel like we are obligated by law to investigate or look into these cases," says Marla Sheely, public information officer for the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. "There may be other children in the home. We've gotta ensure safety."
So, despite the fact that the law promises confidentiality, CPS continues to try to find the mothers, Sheely says. "The law doesn't change how we do business," Sheely says. "It just doesn't really impact us in any way."
Hay says that CPS has to do what's best for the child, which entails finding its family. "This law only affects [that] the mother is not going to be criminally charged," Hay says. She emphasizes that CPS investigations are confidential, not criminal. But the investigations aren't entirely confidential, because once the mother is found -- even if she has kept her pregnancy secret for nine months -- CPS asks her to identify the father and other family members the child could live with.
During the last legislative session, Morrison had several discussions with CPS officials about increasing a mother's anonymity, but she didn't have much luck. Morrison worries CPS's search deters mothers who don't want to be identified. "If the mother thinks CPS is going to come and look for her and hunt her down regardless, she's going to go back and be scared and leave the child in a Dumpster," Morrison says. "That is absolutely the scenario that we want to get rid of."
But if Morrison succeeds in securing the mother's anonymity, critics argue, then the law will eliminate the father's rights. In Michigan, 12 babies have been safely, legally abandoned, but judges have refused to allow them to be adopted because they don't believe there has been a diligent enough search for the fathers. Posting a notice in the newspaper isn't enough, judges say.
Because of CPS's successful search, the father gained custody of the first Houston-area baby legally abandoned. In December 2001, a 28-year-old Bellville woman delivered a baby girl while driving down the Katy Freeway. At 4:53 a.m. she stopped at Fire Station No. 78, where firefighters delivered the placenta and cut the cord. The baby was taken to Texas Children's Hospital, and the mother drove herself home.
"She just did the right thing," Hay said at the time. "I just applaud her so much."
Since HPD filed an incident report, where the woman gave her correct name, address and telephone number, CPS was able to contact her and speak with her parents and find the baby's father.
Her roommate at Ohio Dominican College had already left for Thanksgiving break, so 19-year-old Twyana Davis delivered her baby alone. At 1 a.m., she wrapped her daughter in a blanket and left her in a Dumpster behind her dorm. It was 30 degrees. She called campus police and watched from a window until squad cars showed up.
"I didn't want her to die," Davis says. "I just felt like I couldn't take her home."
This was six years ago, and even if the safe haven law had existed, Davis insists that she wouldn't have used it. Getting pregnant, she says, didn't fit into her life plan, and she never created a plan B. "When I delivered I was scared, I was afraid, I was panicked, I was frantic -- I didn't know what I was going to do," Davis says. "I was not in a rational state of mind to say, 'Oh, I'm going to take the baby to the hospital.' "
Davis argues that the law requires both premeditation and a presence of mind she lacked. She says mothers like her don't think ahead and formulate an abandonment plan.
Davis pleaded guilty to one charge of child endangerment and was sentenced to a year of house arrest, counseling and five years of probation. Her grandparents took custody of the baby until two years ago, when Davis was granted custody of her daughter, Danielle.
Davis has since co-founded a nonprofit organization called a Second Chance at Life, which tries to prevent abandonment. She offers parenting classes, prenatal care and lectures ninth-grade girls about making better decisions. She says if she had had someone to talk to and guide her through the pregnancy, then maybe she wouldn't have discarded her daughter.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
Clarissa visited the baby in foster care. "I couldn't leave," she says, wiping a tear from her eye. " 'He's mine. I want him to be my family' was all I could think," she says.
But the judge wouldn't let her raise him.
Her older brother, James, adopted the boy and named him Jordan Michael. Clarissa baby-sits him every Monday and Wednesday night. Her mother says she keeps a closer eye on Clarissa. She watches what Clarissa eats, asks every month if she's had her period, and tells her to diet and exercise so she can see the shape of her body.
Clarissa sits in the dark on her front porch. Her son Jeremiah opens the front door to tell her they're eating chicken inside. He doesn't understand why she won't come inside and eat with him. He runs out and hugs her. Runs back in. Then comes back for another kiss.
Tears slip down her cheek. "I have the same feelings for Jordan as I have for him," she says, gesturing toward the brown-haired boy clinging to her.
"I wish everything had panned out the way it was supposed to," she says. "I wish I had done it the right way."
Her brother says that when Jordan's older, he'll know that Clarissa is his mother. But she's not sure how she's going to tell him, or how she's going to explain it.