A Mother's Choice

Jennine Lee-St. John

Do laws that let women abandon their infants protect babies or encourage parents to desert them?

The baby now named Tessa Leavitt was born in a motel bathtub on the night of June 18, 2005. Her mother cleaned her, breast-fed her and cut the umbilical cord herself. The next day, the young Hispanic woman swaddled the infant in a white towel and took her to Fire Station 15 in Whittier, Calif., where she rang the doorbell and told the firefighters, "I want to give up my baby." When the paramedics arrived 30 minutes later, she put the child on their gurney and left. "It was eerie," recalls firefighter Kevin Cull. "The ambulance went off in one direction, and she just crossed the street and walked off in the other direction."

Tessa's birth mom gave up her child under California's Safely Surrendered Baby Law, which lets parents avoid prosecution for abandoning their newborns if they leave the infants with staff members of emergency rooms or other approved places, including fire stations. Since 1999, 47 states have adopted similar laws permitting children to be relinquished, with age limits ranging from 3 days old in 16 states to 1 year in Missouri and North Dakota. In California the baby must be under 72 hours old, but a bill recently passed by the legislature would extend the deadline to 30 days. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not stated a position on the measure, has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto it. The longer grace period has renewed debate over whether such leniency actually protects children or encourages parents to desert them.

The record doesn't help answer that question. Since 2001, when California enacted its safe-haven law, more than 150 newborns there have been surrendered safely, but at least 160 have been illegally abandoned. The experience has been similar in other states. In the five years before 2001, when North Carolina began allowing the surrender of infants up to a week old, there were 10 known cases of babies who were illegally abandoned and died. From 2001 to '04, nine infants were illegally abandoned and died, while five or six were given up under the safe-haven law. Illinois, which this summer extended its safe-surrender deadline from three days to seven, has had 27 official relinquishments since 2001, but 44 babies were simply abandoned, 20 of whom died.

Opponents of safe-haven laws say these statistics prove the statutes don't work and may even increase the numbers of children who are given away. "These laws are persuading women who wouldn't have abandoned their babies in any form to do so," says Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Even some people who favor legal surrender of newborns are uncomfortable with expanding the law's reach to month-old babies. Los Angeles County board supervisor Don Knabe has lobbied Schwarzenegger to leave California's three-day law intact. He says pushing parents to make an early decision ensures that unwanted infants get the care and medical attention they need, and dissuades parents from abusing a baby and then waiting for the bruises to fade before giving up the infant. "If someone waits 30 days to surrender a baby, there is no way to determine if that baby suffered any harm during that time," he says.

But advocates for longer amnesty periods say it's important to provide an alternative for parents who try to keep their newborns but become dangerously overwhelmed. "If the baby's being abused, don't we want to save that baby too?" says Dawn Geras of Save Abandoned Babies in Chicago. Alberto Torrico, the state assemblyman who sponsored California's 30-day extension, and Donne Trotter, a state senator who pushed the later deadline in Illinois, agree. They argue that parents should have time to decide if they are fit. "The reality of raising a baby really dawns on you once you get it home," Torrico says.

Still, the main impetus for drafting surrender statutes was dealing with brand-new moms who would not hesitate to leave their babies in Dumpsters. "They don't look at the baby as a human being," says Debbe Magnusen, founder of Project Cuddle, a national hotline to rescue unwanted babies, who has helped mothers ranging in age from their teens to their 30s. "It's a tumor or an object or a problem." Spreading the word about the existence of surrender laws has been hard. The details of California's are supposed to be taught in sex-ed classes and publicly advertised. But with no state funding available, it's up to local governments and private foundations like Magnusen's to promote the law.

Somehow Tessa's birth mother found out about it. And giving up her baby gave the child a chance at a good life, at least in the eyes of Donna Leavitt, who with her husband Rob ended up adopting the girl: "I can't help but think that the safe-surrender sign at the fire station helped lead Tessa to us." The Leavitts would love for their daughter to meet her birth mom. But in most cases that is unlikely, since the law allows surrendering parents to be anonymous. "Many of these mothers do not like their babies," says Magnusen. "We're not asking them to love the baby, just not to kill it." In California, they may soon have more time to make that decision.

With reporting by reporting by Stacie Stukin/Los Angeles

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