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Baby With the Bath Water 

Legalizing baby dumping might feel good, but is it smart?

Wednesday, May 3 2000
On a beautiful spring day in April, Debi Faris wept in public as she described her life work: burying dead babies. The mother of three from Southern California was testifying before a state legislative committee in Sacramento about why she is pushing for a bill that would make it legal to abandon infants within 72 hours of birth. Choked with emotion, Faris spoke about giving a "coffin for a cradle to newborns stuffed into trash cans by a narrow group of mothers, some fearful, some selfish."

Faris has become a celebrity of late, the subject of flattering articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among others. Her calling does, indeed, wrench the hardest heart -- for the past several years she has been picking up unclaimed dead babies from city morgues in Southern California and putting them to rest in her Garden of Angels cemetery in Calimesa, an exurb of Los Angeles.

A few of the children entombed by Faris were illegally abandoned shortly after birth. They were left to die by mothers apparently too scared to turn somewhere for help. This inspired Faris to approach her district representative, state Sen. James L. Brulte, and ask him to legalize infant abandonment.

"If we save one baby's life," Faris said through sobs at the recent legislative hearing, "it will be worth whatever it takes to pass this law."

As Faris emoted, audience members cried with her. A woman exclaimed, sotto voce, "How could anyone vote against this bill?"

But there may be very good reasons to oppose the so-called baby dumping bill. It is just difficult to hold a clearheaded discussion of public policy in the face of such overwhelming, and understandable, sentiment. Rightly or wrongly, nobody wants to be perceived as being soft on baby killing.

Two prominent nonprofit organizations that advocate for baby rights, however, have gone against the rising political tide and come out against the Brulte bill. A key Assembly staffer is also very critical of the proposed law. Several legislators and special interest groups are demanding extensive changes to the bill because of legal and practical problems associated with it.

You might not know that there is real opposition to the Brulte bill, since most mainstream media and press reports have largely downplayed questions of the wisdom of legalized baby dumping. But there are some potentially troubling flaws in the idea, and in the legislation as it is now written.

It is currently a crime for a parent to abandon a child under the age of 14. The Brulte bill would allow anyone to abandon a child under the age of 72 hours at a hospital emergency room -- or another location designated by a county's board of supervisors -- without being subject to prosecution. The person dropping off the newborn infant would be able to do so anonymously. However, a coded identification ankle bracelet would be attached to the person dropping off the infant and to the baby. The bracelet is intended to allow the wearer to reclaim the baby within 14 days if she changes her mind.

Of course, a bracelet may be lost, or sold. Despite the noble intentions of the bill's framers, logical problems of this sort keep cropping up in trying to figure out how to make baby dumping work.

As merits of the bill were debated before the Judiciary Committees of the California Assembly and Senate on April 25, several legislators posed thoughtful objections to it. Some said it might violate rights of due process guaranteed in the state Constitution; others talked about the impracticalities of implementing a baby dump law. Then both committees voted unanimously to keep the bill alive.

Brulte's proposal is derived from a law passed last September in Texas, with strong support from Gov. George W. Bush. The bill also is similar to others now pending before 17 state legislatures. In the face of humanity's nearly universal love for babies, it is difficult for politicians to oppose these bills. But the concept of baby dumping has not been tested in reality, say the proposal's critics.

Brulte, a Republican Party bigwig, is up for re-election this fall in his Riverside-San Bernardino district near Rancho Cucamonga. He claims that a pilot program in Mobile, Ala., has saved five babies from the dumpster. He cautioned legislators, however, not to overestimate the problem, saying that, nationwide, only about 100 children a year are illegally dumped, most by panicked teenagers trying to hide undeniable evidence of their sexual activity from unsupportive parents.

"It's a small, but growing, problem," Brulte said.

San Franciscan Ron Morgan is national spokesperson for Bastard Nation, a 1,000-member organization that advocates opening birth records to adult adoptees. Morgan points to press accounts showing that, despite a massive public relations campaign in Texas, not a single baby has been turned over to the program. On the other hand, 12 infants have been illegally abandoned in Texas since the baby dump law was adopted, so there is apparently some question about the law's effectiveness. Bastard Nation opposes Brulte's bill because it "strips the infant of its identity; and, also, reverses a century of social policies that discourage abandonment."

"How would the state advertise the baby dump alternative?" Morgan asks. "A century of public child welfare policy has educated women not to abandon their babies. Suddenly, you are going to encourage it?"

Twelve thousand infants are legally abandoned in hospitals every year, according to the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resources Center in Berkeley. These children are quickly funneled into foster care and adoption systems. If a mother wants to relinquish a newborn, there are many safe and confidential avenues for doing so, say experts.

At the Assembly hearing, member Dion L. Aroner, representing Alameda and Contra Costa counties, raised a number of questions regarding the logic of anonymously dropping a newborn off at a hospital, or, as contemplated by the bill, anywhere chosen by local politicians. Aroner said the Brulte bill has gray areas; and it is "a mistake to let fear, and a few incidents, drive a child welfare policy."

"What happens to the infant after being dropped off?" she asked. "Does a nurse get to keep it? A janitor? Why are we creating one standard for new mothers who fear their parents, and another for mothers who abandon older children to save them from harm? A mother who drops off a child to save it from abuse by her violent husband would still be prosecuted under this law."

Other legislators asked how the mother's anonymity could be preserved if she changes her mind and reclaims the infant within the allowed 14-day grace period. When this question was first raised, Brulte inserted a clause requiring coded ankle bracelets to be attached to mother and child. Critics then asked what is to keep an anonymous birth mother from losing -- or selling -- her bracelet? Brulte admitted the dilemma and, off the cuff, suggested DNA testing as a solution. He did not clarify, however, how recording a person's DNA profile would not violate anonymity.

The foundations of the baby dump bill are the guarantees of immunity from prosecution and anonymity. By the end of the day's hearings, Brulte conceded the existence of logical disconnects such as the practicality of keeping a mother's anonymity and, simultaneously, offering her the opportunity to change her mind. He grappled with the problem of providing mandatory counseling for the mother while keeping her identity a secret from the counselor.

Several male legislators, led by state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), questioned the constitutionality of the proposed law. Under existing law, said the legislators, a birth father has the right to due process and the chance to take custody of his child. If a mother dumps the infant anonymously -- and on her own -- there is no way to contact the father, much less protect his parental rights.

Like the bill's supporters, its critics are horrified by the rare instances of illegal infant abandonment that periodically grab the media's attention. They oppose the bill because, they say, it will not solve the problems of fear-driven infanticides and impulsive abandonment, while it will undermine existing social policy, and the body of law already regulating the welfare of children.

They do not believe that providing anonymity, or immunity from prosecution, will make any difference in the actions of traumatized mothers who are so irrational that they put their babies in the trash. The legal changes mandated by the bill, they say, could harm other interested groups.

Deborah Magnusen runs Project Cuddle in Orange County. In the last three years, she says, her volunteers have saved 200 babies from abandonment. Project Cuddle's outreach program helps mothers-in-trouble to place their infants into the adoption system as soon as they are born; or, better yet, to abandon the despair of secrecy and keep the child. Magnusen is concerned that the Brulte bill has troublesome loopholes. "How would the hospital workers know that the person dumping the baby is the real mother?" she asks.

"If the girl has kept the pregnancy hidden from friends and family, it's a big fallacy to believe she'll waltz into an emergency room to give it up," Magnusen observes.

"There is also the problem of what we call 'selective abandonment,'" says Magnusen. "That's where parents have, say, four boys and they want a girl. But they give birth to another boy instead -- and decide to dump him anonymously."

Donna S. Hershkowitz, counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee, analyzed the bill for the committee. Hershkowitz wrote: "This bill is primarily intended to provide an alternative to panicked teenagers. In those distressing cases where teenagers hid a baby in a trash can behind the house, or in the bathroom at the school prom, it seems unlikely that the teenager would be willing to step outside the house or the school bathroom and risk being discovered, regardless of the criminal nature of the abandonment."

Hershkowitz labeled the bill a "slippery slope" with many unintended consequences. She sees California family law as carefully constructed to balance the rights of parents and offspring. Creating a special class of anonymous baby dumpers could upset decades of jurisprudence. It could undercut the child welfare system's ability to care for thousands of infants and children who are legally abandoned by their parents every year.

When asked if the baby dump program might provide a convenient way for callous people to painlessly shed newborns, Faris replied, "I am a mother. There is no way on Earth that I would abandon a child if it was not in my mind already." And that is precisely the point, say opponents: Faris is not like teenagers who live in denial of their pregnancy for nine months and, then, panic and smother the baby in a closet. As a real alternative, says Magnusen, public money should be spent on reaching out to pregnant teenagers before they give birth. She says the Brulte bill is media-driven and does not speak to the reality of the situation.

The bill's supporters include several right-to-life organizations, the California Catholic Conference, and Planned Parenthood. Professional organizations representing health workers supported the bill after they were given immunity from prosecution if any harm befell an infant under their care. Ambulance and firefighter organizations supported the bill after Brulte removed a provision classifying fire stations as baby drop-off venues.

Brulte admits that his bill is, at best, only a partial solution to a statistically insignificant problem. He acknowledges the grave problems confronting the implementation of the law, such as how to provide anonymity, preserve a father's parental rights, obtain medical history relevant to the child's health, publicize the program without encouraging abuse of it, etc.

And yet he is pushing for the bill with all his might.

"I try to take the abandoned child's point of view," Brulte says.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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