COSTA MESA, Calif.—They are in denial about their pregnancies. And when they give birth they either can't find help or don't want to, simply because they can't believe they've become mothers.
Such is the typical profile of young, usually unmarried, mothers who abandon their babies, alive or dead. There are no hard figures available on the number of these cases nationwide, but many observers and public officials believe such cases are on the rise.
Now, efforts are under way by state and local governments to provide a safe place for women to give up their babies without fear.
California state Sen. James Brulte introduced a “legalized abandonment” bill in January in order to give frightened mothers a safe alternative, modeled on a Texas law. It also mirrors efforts in Colorado and Kentucky.
“Our message to young mothers is that guilt, shame or panic are not reasons to destroy a newborn's chance at life,” said Brulte. “There are many people willing to adopt these babies, and we need to create greater awareness of options other than child abandonment.”
Under the Texas law, a mother can voluntarily deliver a child to emergency medical personnel without threat of prosecution. Law-makers in Texas acted after a string of abandoned babies were found in Houston. In total, 13 babies were discovered in just 10 months. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is proposing federal legislation to track the number of babies abandoned nationwide.
The Texas law was in turn modeled on a program started in Mobile, Ala. There, television reporter Jodi Brooks became so disgusted with the number of abandonment cases that she gathered together the local prosecutor, social service agencies and hospitals to create “A Secret Safe Place for Newborns.”
Under the program, a baby has to be dropped off within 72 hours of birth to a designated hospital. The mother is promised that she won't be prosecuted and the baby is placed in foster care. A mother has six months to reclaim her child.
Since the program started in 1998, four babies were brought in safely. Authorities are aware of only one abandoned infant.
Critics of the “legalized abandonment” programs and laws recognize the good intentions behind them, especially in the wake of high-profile cases such as the New Jersey teen who gave birth in a bathroom at her senior prom and dumped the infant in a trash can.
But these same critics are concerned that women who are in denial over their pregnancy and childbirth may be unwilling to walk into a busy hospital with security cameras on the walls.
Among the critics is Project Cuddle, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based group. Spokeswoman Laurie Larson said its national hot line ( 628-3353) and volunteer network provides one-on-one support that surpasses the anonymity of a baby drop-off.
“We really treat the girls as people and the state treats them as numbers,” Larson told the Register. “A loving program comforts the soul. You can't believe the difference when you tell a girl, ‘I'll be there for you, no matter what.’”
Established by Debbe Magnusen in 1990, Project Cuddle claims to have counseled 190 mothers who might have abandoned their babies. Which is a far better record than the baby drop-off programs, Larson contended.
Larson noted that no babies have dropped off at the designated areas since the Texas law took effect. In fact, she said, four babies in Houston were abandoned in that time, one of which died.
“In the same period, we've rescued 22 babies across the nation,” Larson said. She contended that legalized-abandonment laws often contain too many loopholes. “You can still be prosecuted,” she noted. “It's up to the discretion of the prosecutor.”
In addition, she noted, the law doesn't require that the baby be giving to a hospital worker. “The girl can hide the baby in the bathroom or outside the hospital,” she said. She also wondered what the law would offer a mother whose baby was over 30 days old, but still needed help.
Which is why Leah Thomas recommends Project Cuddle for any woman who finds herself in a situation similar to Thomas' last year.
“Project Cuddle makes sure you can get back on your feet and that the baby is taken care of,” said Thomas, who credits the program with helping her before and after her twins were born. “I just think that's better than dropping off the baby at the hospital.”
Just in Time
Seven months pregnant, with no family living nearby, Leah Thomas caught the last few minutes of a television program that changed her life.
The show highlighted a nonprofit group called Project Cuddle, which tries to save babies from being abandoned by providing their mothers with financial and spiritual support.
“I waited a few days before I called because I was so scared,” Thomas, 20, told the Register. She said she found a gentle and healing voice on the phone.
Thomas received important information over the phone. Within a few days a volunteer came by to visit her. The volunteer brought Thomas maternity clothes and brought her to a doctor for prenatal care.
The assistance made for a special Christmas celebration.
“I had my kids on Christmas Day,” said Thomas. “It was very nice. Laurie [Larson, of Project Cuddle] was in the delivery room because I don't really have any relatives out here. She was like my coach.”
Thomas gave birth to twin boys, Jordan and Josiah. Project Cuddle even got her a job baby-sitting other children, including her own, because Thomas decided to raise her children. (Project Cuddle also helps moms who give their babies up for adoption.)
To this day Thomas still does-n't know what she would have done had she not learned about Project Cuddle.
“I'm happy I called,” said Thomas. “I'm glad I saw that program on TV.”