'Safe Haven' law suffers from neglect

Program aimed at rescuing unwanted babies faces lack of funding, publicity.

March 7, 2009 

Blanca Espinoza talks to her 2-year-old in a blend of Spanish and English.

She's offering a motherly reminder on manners, which little Avelino grasps quickly, responding with the magic word: "Please."

This scene might not have happened without California's Safe Surrender law, which gives parents an alternative to abandoning their newborns. In 2006, Espinoza and her husband adopted Avelino, who was surrendered at a Fresno hospital.

State statistics show the number of surrendered babies has grown nearly every year since the law took effect in 2001.

But the program is suffering from neglect. A state audit last year questioned whether the law could be more effective and described it as virtually abandoned by the state.

Today, the program lacks stable funding, publicity and outspoken champions -- especially in the Valley.

So little attention is paid to the program that no one has reconciled conflicting state and county statistics, a Fresno Bee review has found. And in Fresno County, where seven babies have been given up and placed for adoption, local officials don't agree what places are officially designated as safe surrender sites.

Perhaps more seriously, statistics show that fewer babies are safely surrendered in Fresno County than in some smaller counties that give the program more publicity.

Catherine Huerta, director of the county's Children and Family Services, said the county needs to go through a formal process to designate sites. She also said the law deserves a more consistent publicity campaign.

"Do I think we could do more? I do," she said.

Susan Anderson, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors and an adoptive mother, agreed more promotion is needed. But she added: "If a mother wants to find a safe place for their baby, there are plenty of people to help."

In September 2000, the state Legislature approved the law known as the "Safe Haven" or "Safely Surrendered Baby Law." The law allows parents to give up newborns at hospitals or other designated sites and face no criminal penalty for child abandonment.

The program became effective Jan. 1, 2001, and was set to expire Jan. 1, 2006, but lawmakers made it permanent.

When the concept was introduced in 2000, lawmakers were reacting to reports of abandoned babies found dead. The law -- similar to those in other states -- offered a safe, confidential alternative to parents who chose to give up an infant.

Parents can hand off a newborn at a hospital or other location -- such as a fire station -- designated by a county board of supervisors. Infants surrendered receive medical care and are placed by the county in a foster home or pre-adoptive home.

But the lack of statewide publicity, and state funding, has potentially eroded the law's effectiveness, according to the state audit of the program.

The audit also detailed a series of problems -- such as the collection of confidential information on a baby's parents and incorrect classifications of infants as safely surrendered or abandoned.

Today, state agencies have little responsibility for the program. The only statewide media campaign took place nearly six years ago.

State statistics suggest that despite the neglect, the law is making a difference. As the number of surrendered babies has grown, the number of those abandoned has generally declined.

Through 2008, according to the state, 280 babies have been safely surrendered. During the same time, 151 abandoned babies were found alive and at least 31 were found dead.

State officials say the death statistic is likely incomplete because all fatalities may not be reported to social services.

The count of surrendered babies also could be flawed. State officials say glitches in reporting explain some differences.

Locally, few counties sink money into promotion or identify safe surrender sites beyond hospitals.

An exception is Tulare County, where a young mother allegedly abandoned three infants in an Orosi neighborhood in 2005 and 2006. One baby died and the mother will stand trial on charges of murder and child abandonment.

County supervisors later designated more than two dozen fire stations as safe surrender sites.

In Fresno County, the law gets little consistent attention or money. The county Web page lists only statewide information about the program and doesn't include local telephone numbers for information about safe surrender.

Local authorities don't even agree which sites in Fresno County are officially designated as safe surrender sites.

Many fire stations in Fresno County will accept safe surrenders, even though they have not been formally authorized by the county. Last November, for example, city firefighters in northwest Fresno took in a newborn boy.

The baby was in safe hands. But, under the law, the parent should have been offered a coded bracelet -- in case they want to reclaim the baby -- and a health questionnaire. City fire stations haven't had those items to give.

About 20 CalFire and Fresno County Fire Protection District stations go further, advertising themselves as safe surrender sites. Fire Capt. Chris Christopherson said officials put together kits with a bracelet and medical questionnaire, along with a sign that shows the "Safe Haven" logo.

Huerta, the director of Children and Family Services, said the county needs to clearly identify designated sites, ensure that they are properly equipped and arrange training on the law for the employees.

Both Huerta and Anderson, the Board of Supervisors' chairwoman, said they would welcome the help of a nonprofit organization to bring more attention to the program.

Esther Franco, executive director of the nonprofit Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention, said child welfare agencies are simply overwhelmed.

Her three-person agency is focused on other issues, such as shaken baby syndrome and drug addicted parents -- a family problem that often leads to abused and neglected children.

"When you look at child abuse, I want to concentrate on prevention and family planning. Safe surrender was a specific solution to a very specific problem of baby dumping," Franco said.

There is evidence in nearby counties that partnerships, and publicity, may encourage use of the program.

In Kern County, 10 babies have been surrendered under the program. Barbara Zimmermann, executive coordinator of the county's human services department, said about half have been given up at fire stations.

The county's outreach effort includes presentations to county staffers and hospital officials and a public information campaign funded by a nonprofit. The county has 70 designated safe surrender sites.

"It's very important for people to know that there is an alternative," she said.

In San Joaquin County -- roughly two-thirds the population of Fresno County -- 21 babies have been safely surrendered, including six last year.

The Tracy Women's Club, a nonprofit group in San Joaquin County, volunteered to help promote the law and sought grant funding to pay for it.

The club put ads on city buses, mailed pamphlets to local clinics and pushed the Board of Supervisors to add fire stations as designated drop-off sites.

Jean Shipman, longtime club member, said the partnership made sense: "Babies and women go together. You hear the statistics of babies being dumped off like that, in unsafe places. ... There's no reason for that."

Dave Erb, deputy director of Children's Services for the county, credits the women's club for getting out the word.

Since the state hasn't provided money to publicize the program, he said, "we're just fortunate the Tracy Women's Club is doing it for free."

The reporters can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com, tcorrea@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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