Child, Left Behind
Local social workers and business people work to educate fieldworkers about Safely Surrendered Baby Law.
Thursday, June 30, 2005
Any parent or guardian of an infant younger than three days old can hand the newborn over to staff of any hospital in Monterey County, anonymously or not, without fear of prosecution. Within 14 days of leaving the baby behind, the parent or guardian can reclaim the baby. That’s the law.
A handful of local individuals, businesses, nonprofits and state agencies are going out of their way to ensure the public knows about it. The effort to educate the public started with one local company last month when Star Sanitation, the company whose toilets are used in Salinas Valley agriculture fields—and in other farms, statewide—placed stickers explaining the law in over 400 of its portable units.
Bree Nakashima, a social worker in the adoptions unit of Monterey County’s Children and Family Services, has been at the helm of the education push for the past year, since June 2004, when a South County teenage fieldworker left her newborn in a portable toilet near Soledad.
Her plight, and that of her baby’s, known now as Baby Hope, made headlines nationwide.
“I was there that day when we got the call about the baby girl,” Nakashima says. “I saw the absolute fear the mother was experiencing. She didn’t have anywhere to turn, didn’t know what her rights were, and didn’t know she could have done this safely. It was extremely emotional and very sad. Mostly, I was disappointed that we have this law, and children could still be left behind.”
On the surface, it feels reactionary, absurd even, as if one incident of a baby left in a portable toilet was somehow indicative of the dawning of a trend. The stickers seem to scream of condescension to their likely fieldworker readers. But, says Nakashima and others, nothing could be further from the truth. The opportunity for education presented itself, and those who wanted to educate seized upon it.
Five years ago, state lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 1368. By late summer 2000, Gov. Gray Davis had signed the bill that would soon become known as the Safely Surrendered Baby Law. In January of 2001, it went into effect.
The vision of California lawmakers at the turn of the millennium was simple: save babies from death by abandonment by making it legal for parents to leave their newborns in a safe place, like hospitals or fire stations.
But news about California’s new law didn’t exactly spread like wildfire. While official statistics are hard to come by, informal reports from counties across the state indicate that since 2001, nearly 80 babies have been surrendered. Another 115, according to some reports, have been found abandoned in other undesignated safe spots; two dozen were found dead. No matter the specific numbers, agencies and volunteers say one death is too many and blame a lack of public education about the law.
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Baby Hope was the second of three babies abandoned in Northern California in June 2004. One other survived because its mother, a 33-year-old San Jose woman, called 911 and then sat nearby watching to ensure rescue workers found and saved her baby. Another, a 22-year-old mother who was alone and broke, left her baby in a Palo Alto motel where it died. Had they known, all three women could have taken their babies to hospitals—and left without a trace if they’d chosen.
Nakashima didn’t want to hear another story like that again. In collaboration with team members at Leadership Salinas Valley, where Nakashima was taking a six-month leadership course, the idea of creating stickers advertising the law was born.
The stickers took five months to develop and was a collaborative effort among Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital and its Service League Volunteers, Leadership Salinas Valley, Salinas Rotary, Star Sanitation, the Mexican Consul, and Migrant Education. They are in English and Spanish and include pictures to help those who may not be able to read either language.
“We wanted to put them everywhere: schools, public restrooms, dumpsters, garbage cans,” Nakashima says.
The ubiquitous education Nakashima and her colleagues dream of is still on the horizon. For now, though, they’re ecstatic about their startup effort.
Star Sanitation, a subsidiary of Pacific Ag Rentals in Spreckels, has agreed to place the stickers in every one of their portable toilets. To date, they’ve placed the stickers in about 75 percent of their units.
“We wanted to take an active role educating people we’re working with,” says company Vice President Bart Walker. And, he says, the fieldworker is the most disadvantaged when it comes to getting news. “We get our news at 6 o’clock or by reading newspapers. When do these people have time for that? They’re working from before sunup until after sundown. If we can help educate this one segment of the population, the segment we work with directly, then that’s great.”
It’s a monumental first step in an education process that’s long overdue according to Margaret Huffman, a Children and Family Services program manager. The department is responsible for finding homes for children of all ages countywide, including babies surrendered under the law.
“We’ve had parents come in and ask to use the Safely Surrendered Baby Law,” Huffman says. While most parents ultimately opted to voluntarily relinquish their babies, which works more like traditional adoption, Huffman says there have been a couple of babies surrendered to local hospitals since the law was enacted.
Huffman explains that even in cases of surrendered babies, hospitals encourage adults to fill out a brief health history questionnaire for their babies, leave names and phone numbers if they choose, and offer emotional help if parents ask for it. Adults are then informed of the 14-day rescission period, and are given identification bracelets that match their baby’s in case they do come back.
Since the law was enacted, only one parent has come back for a child, only to disappear again before reinstatement proceedings could be finalized.
“It doesn’t matter the circumstances or if we never see or hear from them again,” Huffman says. “If one baby is saved, then we’ve all done our jobs.”
The Safely Surrendered Baby Law is due to expire January 1. There is legislation pending to prevent its