April 4, 2007
Deserted Babies a National Problem
OROSI, Calif. -- Residents and investigators alike ponder how a mother could abandon three newborns in two years, all in the same neighborhood of this small farming town.
And they're not alone.
Abandoned-infant cases like the one focusing a national spotlight on Orosi are as baffling to social service and child-advocacy experts as they are to local detectives searching _ so far in vain _ for the mother.
Some estimates suggest more than 50 infants are abandoned each day in the United States. Theories abound about why a woman would desert a newborn in some public place _ or worse _ without knowing whether her child will live or die.
"What makes a person leave a child where it can be easily found, or at a hospital, rather than putting it in a trash can or a roadside to die?" asked Joyce Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America in Washington, D.C. "We have no way of knowing."
Because in most cases the mothers are never found, the answers remain missing pieces of a heartbreaking puzzle.
The Orosi case has sparked renewed interest in safe-haven laws that allow mothers to anonymously and legally abandon their babies. But some critics say rather than solving the crisis, such laws add to the uncertainty because they don't give authorities a chance to treat the mother for physical or emotional problems.
Orosi's mystery began Feb. 10, 2005, when a baby boy, less than 2 hours old, was found in front of a home on Paradise Court. It continued 11 months later, on Jan. 8, 2006, as a family living less than two blocks away found a girl less than a day old in the bed of a pickup parked out front. Both babies survived.
After another 11-month interval, on Dec. 3, the tiny body of another girl less than a day old was found in the bed of a pickup _ less than two blocks from the others.
Many are quick to judge the mother. They question why she didn't drop off the babies at safe locations such as a hospital or fire station. Such criticism only intensified after the third baby was found dead.
"I think a baby is a gift from God," said Robert Huerta of Cutler, Calif., a town less than a mile south of Orosi. "And to do that _ she must not have a heart."
Tulare County coroner's officials named the dead infant Angelita DeOrosi _ Spanish for "little angel of Orosi." She was buried last week in a donated plot at a cemetery in nearby Dinuba.
Disbelief in the community grew to nationwide amazement last week after sheriff's detectives said DNA tests confirmed the three babies were siblings and likely from the same mother.
Investigators already believed the first two cases might be connected. Genetic samples were sent for testing, but officials said a backlog at a state lab kept the two cases from being a top priority until the discovery of the dead baby late last year.
Sgt. Chris Douglass, a sheriff's spokeswoman, said investigators have repeatedly visited Orosi in recent months to follow leads. A handful of those interviewed even gave samples of DNA, but results eliminated them as possibilities.
"No one's been arrested or detained; we're just following leads," Douglass said.
But with leads exhausted, detectives hope a $5,000 reward may prompt tips that will help identify the mother and explain her reasoning.
National experts say the answers in such cases are elusive, except in rare instances where mothers are found.
"We don't know how many might have been raped or coerced with domestic violence," Johnson said of women who feel compelled to conceal a pregnancy or abandon a baby.
"The surprising thing to wonder about is, what motivates a woman to go through this alone?" she added. "Are they really alone in these cases when they're in labor and delivery?"
A lack of accurate information makes the scope of the problem difficult to define.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families _ a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. _ said the federal government leaves it to states to track abandonment cases. There is no requirement for states to report their statistics to federal officials.
Wolfe said the most recent national data were commissioned by Congress in 1998. That year, the government reported, 30,800 babies were abandoned in hospitals across the country; another 105 "discarded" infants were found in other public places, including 33 dead babies.
Project Cuddle, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that offers women and girls support and referrals to prevent abandonments, estimates that as many as 57 babies a day are deserted in the United States.
California is one of 47 states with safe haven laws that permit a mother to leave a newborn at a hospital or fire station without fear of prosecution. Since the state Safely Surrendered Baby law was enacted in 2001, 182 infants were surrendered at such havens, while another 146 infants were found alive after being abandoned elsewhere.
The Orosi abandonments and the death of the third baby prompted Tulare County supervisors to increase the number of safe haven sites where a mother can drop off a newborn under the state law. Thirty city and county fire stations were added to the three hospitals already on the list.
Officials also want to increase awareness of safe havens, blanketing the town with fliers, posters and bumper stickers.
In Sacramento last week, the Assembly Judiciary Committee approved a bill by Assembly Member Alberto Torrico to change the California law. The law currently allows a parent to drop off a newborn up to 3 days old at a hospital or other designated safe haven; Torrico's bill would extend the time to 30 days after a child is born.
Project Cuddle founder Debbe Magnusen said her organization has saved more than 560 babies from abandonment by mothers calling its toll-free hotline since it started in 1996. The group reaches out to pregnant women to offer care, support and alternatives to abandonment, including adoption.
Magnusen said the women who call run a gamut.
"They're all across the board in race, culture, education and economic status," Magnusen said. "The average age is 21, and about half of them already have a child or have given birth to a baby and given it up."
And, she said, about 50 percent of the women were either foster children, adopted or had other dealings with social service agencies during their childhood.
Some, she said, are victims of rape or incest. "They're in a position where they're abused and they can't tell anyone," Magnusen said. Others were ashamed to tell their families or in a violent domestic relationship with a partner who threatened them if they got pregnant.
The results, Magnusen said, are devastating _ a traumatized woman in emotional denial that she is pregnant or hiding her pregnancy from family.
Some experts commenting on the Orosi case cited the mother's likely trauma when they questioned the effectiveness of safe-haven laws in California and elsewhere.
"What's clear in this case is that the law in California didn't do these kids any good at all," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the nonprofit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Foundation in New York. "It's clear these laws, however well-intentioned, are not accomplishing what they're supposed to."
Pertman said research suggests women who leave babies at hospitals or other safe havens "aren't the ones who were likely to put their babies in harm's way in the first place."
"If you're sane, you don't need a law to tell you that putting your kid in a trash can or a portable toilet is a bad thing to do," he said. "Evidence says that the women who unsafely abandon babies or commit neonaticide are in severe distress or duress or post-partum psychosis."
Oscar Ramirez, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services in Sacramento, said the safe-haven law "is showing its worth."
"We've had 182 newborns left at safe havens in six years," he said. "That's potentially 182 sad stories we'd be reading in the newspaper."
But Johnson expressed concern about the law.
"The issue for child-welfare and family counselors is that this mother isn't getting any help," she said when she learned about the Orosi babies. "With safe-haven laws, you save the child but the mother walks away. There's no help for her medical problems or for her mental health problems."
Johnson added: "Obviously something's going on emotionally; how do you know they're not doing it over and over again? That's a drawback to the legislation, that you're not necessarily preventing it from happening again."
And fears of a repeat occurrence _ a fourth abandoned baby _ dwell on the minds of investigators and Orosi neighbors.
Douglass noted the neat 11-month intervals between the first three babies and said the unknown mother could be pregnant yet again.
Joel Milligan of Orosi lives just a few doors down from each of the homes where the babies were found.
He was alerted to the latest discovery in December by neighbors screaming they had found the dead girl in their truck.
"I don't understand why they just can't put up some video surveillance and catch this woman," Milligan said. "I don't want to see a dead baby in the back of a pickup again."