Feature Archive

When a Mother Abandons Her Baby

Newborn, Unwanted

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

June 25, 2001 -- The news reports are sporadic, but chilling: infant found in Dumpster, in river. Five years ago, Debi Faris was standing in her kitchen making dinner when one such news report came on TV. A newborn boy had been found dead, stuffed in a bag tossed along a Los Angeles freeway.

"I thought, how could anybody throw away a child, a human being," says Faris, who found herself driven to follow up. "I called police, the coroner's office," she tells WebMD. "I said, 'I can't keep walking until I find out what happens to this baby.'" Cremation and eventual burial in a mass grave is the fate, she learned.

Faris decided to take personal responsibility for the infant, whom she came to call "Mathew," and others. She founded Garden of Angels, a special cemetery is Southern California where 45 abandoned children now have their own simple memorial cross -- and each has a name she's given them.

Soon after, Faris helped convince the California legislature to pass what's become known as the "Save the Baby" law. It allows a mother to legally surrender her baby, anonymously and without fear of prosecution, to any hospital emergency room employee, within 72 hours of birth. Since the law took effect on Jan. 1 this year, three babies have been rescued, Faris tells WebMD.

A Movement Is Born

Faris is not alone in her concern. Across the country, efforts ranging from legislation to grassroots action are springing up. People are grappling to understand what drives women to abandon babies and how to help them -- mother and child.

In fact, no one is even sure how big the problem is. There are no hard statistics about numbers of babies abandoned; one survey of newspaper articles -- conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1999 -- shows that 65 reports were made nationwide in 1991; 108 were made in 1998.

"That's only what is reported," says Monica Chopra, with the Child Welfare League of America. "Who knows how many babies are never found?"

Legislation has passed with a speed atypical of most state governments, Chopra tells WebMD. In the past two years, 28 states have passed bills similar to California's. These so-called "safe haven" laws all provide amnesty for mothers who relinquish babies in the first 72 hours to 30 days after birth; the child then goes into state custody and can be placed in foster care or adopted.

However, the bulk of these laws are "feel-good legislation" that allocate no funds to make the programs work -- even to get the word to women, says Joyce Johnson, also with the Child Welfare League. "I think people are looking for simple, easy solutions. People have jumped on this bandwagon, but there are no funds for prevention, for counseling."

Statistics bear out her concern: In California, two newborns were abandoned by their mothers just days after the state passed its law. At least 11 babies have been discarded in Florida since last July, despite that state's new law.

In Houston, monies have gone toward billboards and TV commercials to reach high-risk women -- yet there are still abandoned babies, says Judy Hay, a spokeswoman for the city's Children's Protective Services Department. Three babies have been found dead since Texas enacted its law in 1999 (two were stillborn).

A hotline seems to have helped curb the number; over 600 calls have been logged, Hay tells WebMD.

"Over 20 of those were "potential abandonments," she says. "Two mothers took their babies to local fire stations. We're trying to get the message out there. But what's shocked us is that there's no research about what kind of woman we're trying to reach. We find very few of these moms because there are no leads."

Indeed, both the women and their motivation are a mystery, says Johnson.

"We don't know if they are rape victims, victims of domestic violence, if other people are coercing them to abandon their babies. Where are the fathers? Are there drugs involved? There's no research, no definitive studies of who these women are, and what's motivating them," she says.

What Goes Through a Mother's Mind?

Faris has met a handful. One is in prison. Some have attended her graveside memorial ceremonies (she places notices in local newspapers).

"A lot of these are girls who were afraid to tell their parents," she says. "They're so afraid how their parents will react."

Eva Szigethy, MD, PhD, a child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Boston and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, offers some insights about teen mothers.

"Adolescence is a complicated time, particularly for females," Szigethy tells WebMD. "The centers of a young girl's brain that control emotions and cognition -- how she feels and thinks -- are still developing. Those processes will not completely mature until she has reached young adulthood."

Another factor: the natural selfishness of adolescence -- the need for risk-taking and self-exploration, she says.

"And if she has had an unstable family life -- abuse, neglect, multiple broken attachments -- or if she lacks certain social skills, she will be at increased risk of depression, Szigethy says. "She will then repeat the same patterns she was subjected to -- being a negligent mother. She will become neglectful under the stress."

"Complicating the picture, she says, is that abandonment is not usually premeditated.

"It's impulsive," she says. "That's where brain development comes in. Most adolescents -- especially when they are having negative emotions -- are not able to make well-thought-out, rational decisions."

A Few Solutions

So what's being done to prevent this tragedy?

In Boston, several high schools have special classes for single pregnant adolescents, says Szigethy. "The more support they get at home, at school, in the community, the better they will do."

Most important: "Because these pregnant girls are at higher risk for depression, it's important that they are screened for psychiatric disorders," Szigethy tells WebMD. "Left untreated and unrecognized, it can have detrimental affects on both the mother and the fetus in terms of depression and substance abuse."

In other communities, concerned citizens are taking the lead to help desperate mothers. Last year, after one baby was found dead in the trash and another in a river, a Pittsburgh nurse placed a blanket-lined basket on her front porch and invited desperate mothers to give their unwanted babies to her. No one took advantage of it.

Now, a citywide effort has taken shape, offering to help women rather than punish or judge them, says Patti Weaver, founder of Pittsburgh's "A Hand to Hold" program.

With the city's blessing, Weaver has convinced six area hospitals to accept babies anonymously. A 24-hour help line has been set up through a hospital's ob-gyn service. Weaver is working to raise funds for an advertising campaign -- to inform women about their options. She is also working with legislators to get a statewide "safe haven" law passed.

Thus far, just one woman has taken advantage of Pittsburgh's amnesty law, she says.

Sure, it's just one person, one baby, "but that counts," Weaver tells WebMD. "We're not here to take babies. We just don't want to see babies die."

In New York City, Tim Jaccard, an emergency medical technician, has been chipping away at the problem. Two years ago, he set up the Ambulance Medical Technician Children of Hope program, after four abandoned babies were found in three months' time.

You'll find Jaccard and his volunteers distributing pamphlets and little note cards all over the city -- in homeless shelters, bus terminals, subways: "You've hidden your secret. You've had a baby. Now what are you going to do? Call the crisis center."

So far, over 3,000 phone calls have come in; 51 of those were crisis calls from mothers. Eleven babies have been rescued.

Some of these situations do look hopeless initially, he tells WebMD. Many calls begin this way: "I've just had a baby and I don't want anybody to know about it. Help me. Please take my baby."

"But you talk to the mothers, help them work with their problems, show them there are alternatives," Jaccard says. "I've gone out and met with the women, delivered their babies. Once you allow her to have control over her decision and her life, it helps take the panic out." Very often, he says, they decide to keep the baby.

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