December 26, 1999

A Flurry of Baby Abandonment Leaves Houston Wondering Why


HOUSTON, Dec. 25 -- They found the first baby in a hospital bathroom, a crying newborn whose mother had disappeared. Five days later, a family awoke to find another baby, only minutes old, on the front porch. A third turned up a month later, and then a fourth was found abandoned on a city street.

The cases kept coming, and before long their number had reached 13: Three babies were left outside hospitals. A newborn wrapped in a stained towel was found at a Holiday Inn. One baby boy was discovered on the grounds of an elementary school, and another was found on the street. Three babies were found dead, including a newborn dropped into a trash bin behind a high school.

"I'd get a heads-up from the police that they'd gotten another one, and I'd think, 'Is this a bad joke?' " said Judy Hay, a spokeswoman for Harris County Children's Protective Services. "I just couldn't believe it."

In the last year, without any apparent pattern, the Houston metropolitan area has experienced an unprecedented rash of baby abandonment.

The problem has baffled local officials, who say an ordinary year might bring two or three cases and who are confronted by a pair of questions no one can answer: Why here? Why now?

There are almost no national data to put the problem into context. Such cases are usually rare enough that most cities, including New York, do not keep statistics on discarded babies, as they are officially known.

But Joyce Gray Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League, an umbrella group in Washington representing more than 1,000 social service organizations, said that like Houston, other large cities usually saw only a few discarded babies a year.

Precise figures that might otherwise be kept, she said, are lumped into broader categories of abuse or neglect.

"This happens all over the country, but what's happening in Texas is different," Ms. Johnson said. "For one city to have 13 is a little unusual."

This week, a task force on baby abandonment, a group of public and private officials trying to prevent what they consider an aberration from becoming a trend, decided that the problem was serious enough to merit an information campaign.

Billboards aimed at young mothers were unveiled across the city with a toll-free number (1-877-904-SAVE) and a message: "Don't Abandon Your Baby!"

Public-service television and radio advertisements are also planned, and officials hope to publicize a new state law, enacted at least in part because of the flurry of cases here, that encourages mothers who are considering abandoning their babies to hand them over to emergency medical personnel instead.

"We hope that this program will save lives," said one member of the task force, Lester Tyra, the Houston fire chief.

Ms. Hay, of the county's child protection agency, conceded that there was no assurance the campaign would make a difference: other organizations, public and private alike, already provide toll-free numbers and services for mothers in crisis. But because it focuses specifically on abandonment, she said, the new effort is a special way of reaching needy mothers.

There has been no geographic pattern to the cases here: babies have been abandoned in the city proper, in three suburban counties and in nearby Galveston. The heaviest flurry occurred in August and September, when six of the babies were found. None have turned up since then.

So far, the police have found only four of the mothers, three of them teenagers. The assumption is that as a group, the mothers involved in the 13 cases are poor and young, and were either fearful of angering their parents or incapable of rearing a baby.

That 10 of the babies were found alive suggests that their mothers wanted help for them.

In the case of the baby discovered on the front porch, Ms. Hay said, the teenage mother actually lived in the house, with relatives who did not realize she was pregnant.

She gave birth, cleaned the baby, placed it on the porch and then pretended she had discovered it. The baby is now in the care of a relative, and the mother was not charged.

The nine other surviving babies either have been adopted or are in the process.

In the most highly publicized case, the dead newborn daughter of a 15-year-old girl was discovered in August in a high school garbage bin. The police say the baby was killed by multiple blows to the head after birth, and the mother is now being prosecuted as an adult on a murder charge. But United States Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents a swath of inner-city Houston and helped organize the abandonment task force, does not think the solution lies in the criminal justice system.

"I'm saddened about what happened to that lady," Ms. Lee said. "She's indicted. I don't think she should have been indicted. She needs help."

Ms. Lee said the public information campaign would bring attention to the new state law, which took effect on Sept. 1 and provides legal protection for mothers who turn over newborns to hospitals or fire stations rather than abandon them. According to the district attorney's office, the law makes prosecution very unlikely if the baby is not abused and the mother turns it over within 30 days of birth. The measure also streamlines the process of taking a newborn into foster care.

Grass-roots groups organized to find homes for discarded babies have popped up over the years in Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. For the last several years, a San Antonio woman, Donna DeSoto, who adopted a discarded baby, has operated a toll-free number within Texas, 1-800-SAV-BABY.

(She had to cancel a nationwide number for lack of money.)

But while accounts of babies' being discarded -- dumped into trash bins, placed on a stranger's stoop, left in a park -- can make a splash in the news media, such cases amount to a small, mostly unexamined corner of the broader problem of child abandonment.

Far more common is the abandonment of newborns in hospital maternity wards by drug-addicted or H.I.V.-infected mothers. It was in response to this matter that Congress created the National Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center in 1988, a time when these newborns, called "boarder babies," frequently languished in hospitals for months as officials struggled to find foster homes for them.

Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, a federal agency, said that the boarder-baby crisis had led to a great deal of research in the last decade but that far less attention had been paid to discarded babies. Mr. Kharfen said the only statistic he could cite about discarded babies was admittedly very unscientific: a database search of newspapers across the country found 105 such cases in 1998.

With so little information, the task force here has applied for a $66,000 grant from a local foundation to study the problem and find out what can be done to stop it.

The first step, officials say, will be to thoroughly interview the four mothers who have been found and ask them a question: Why?


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