SAN FRANCISCO – Since California emergency rooms began accepting unwanted newborns with no questions asked three years ago, 56 babies have been safely surrendered.
But 98 other newborns have been found alive and abandoned — often in dangerous conditions — and authorities say many young women still have not heard about the law.
The state's Safely Surrendered Baby Law (search) allows a parent or legal guardian to confidentially surrender a newborn three-days old or younger to any hospital emergency room or other designated site without fear of arrest, as long as the baby has not been abused or neglected.
In one case last month, a 17-year-old migrant worker secretly gave birth to a two-month premature, 31/2-pound girl. She gave birth in a toilet, the only private spot in or around a lettuce field.
She then went home, leaving the newborn floating face-up in waste, where her body temperature plummeted to 80.5 degrees. Another worker heard the baby crying and deputies were called.
The mother, a Mixtec Indian from Mexico who is not being identified because of her age, was charged in juvenile court. If convicted of attempted murder, she could be imprisoned until she's 25.
She arrived in Monterey County three months ago and lived and worked with her older sister, who said she didn't know the girl was pregnant.
"This is the most frightened, delicate, childlike person I've run into in a long time," said her lawyer, Miguel Hernandez. "She's not a criminal."
Blanca Zarazua, honorary Mexican consul, first visited the mother in the hospital. She said she'd be very surprised if the girl received any prenatal care, let alone knew of the Safely Surrendered Baby law.
"Word of something positive that could keep you out of trouble doesn't seem to get out there as fast," she said, adding the girl remains weak, fragile and disoriented. "She's just overwhelmed by what's transpired."
Authorities have trouble targeting campaigns about the law because parents are not obligated to share any information about their background or their reasons for giving up the child.
"It's all over the map in terms of age, ethnicity, socio-economics ... there's no profile," according to Andrew Roth, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, which collects the numbers. "All women of childbearing age is a pretty broad demographic."
Despite problems educating the public, the numbers of babies being safely surrendered are steadily increasing. In 2001, only two babies were surrendered, while this year, California is on track to see about 30 young lives saved.
The numbers of abandoned babies have dropped as well — 30 the first year, then 33, 25, and 10 in the first five months of this year. In fact, 2004 may be the first year when there are more babies safely surrendered than abandoned in California.
Forty-four other states have laws similar to California's, including Texas, which was the first to enact one in 1999. While babies have been safely surrendered in Texas since its Baby Moses Law was enacted, others were found dead in trash bins, shoeboxes and fields.
Texas state Rep. Geanie Morrison (search), who sponsored the law, said the state has not provided money to advertise the measure, so it falls to counties and cities to publicize it.
Garrison Frost, who works with Los Angeles County's First 5 commission and led the campaign, said getting the number down to zero is going to be difficult because of the difficulty in addressing the population, but the law is worthwhile.
"Every safely surrendered infant is a success," Frost said.