In a photograph that Dawn Robinson holds up in her living room, two of her three children smile in an almond orchard outside Bakersfield in 2014.
Kern County is where Tyler, 10, and Willow, 8, took their first breaths. It’s also where their birth mothers gave them up at the hospital as part of a state law that allows parents to surrender babies they can’t care for.
At just two days old in 2008, Tyler got a new mother and father in Dawn and Gregg Robinson. In 2011, Tyler got a sister when the Robinsons adopted 2-day-old Willow.
“We were their first homes,” says Robinson, a clinical lab scientist at Kaweah Delta Medical Center.
Since then, the Robinsons have settled in Visalia and have added their first biological son, 4-year-old Dylan, whom Robinson considers her “miracle baby.”
The family is one of many in California that have been shaped partly by surrendered babies who are taken in by foster families and then adopted into new homes through California’s Safely Surrendered Baby law, signed in 2001.
Nearly two decades later, the state has seen a record number of babies safely surrendered through the law. State and county officials say that is an assuring shift from a once-deadly trend.
A shift in numbers
The data from the state’s Office of Child Abuse Prevention lays out the grim reality for some newborns.
Since the law formed, 175 infants in the state have been abandoned up and down the state. Of those discoveries, 103 died, according to the data.
The deadliest year on record since the state began recording such data was 2006, when 16 of 26 abandoned babies were found dead. The total included a baby abandoned in Orosi. As investigators put together that case, they learned the mother had previously abandoned two more babies, both found alive.
But a hopeful sign has steadily emerged year after year. Officials have seen a significant shift of trends since the law took shape. The number of illegally abandoned baby cases has dropped and slowed overtime. The last three years on record show that out of just nine abandoned babies, all survived.
Even more so, the number of babies who have been safely surrendered spiked in 2017 to a record. The state estimates 88 babies were safely surrendered at designated locations in the latest year on record, an all-time high up from 74 the previous year, according to the state.
“The effectiveness of the law is just beginning to show,” says Michael Weston, spokesman for California Department of Social Services. “You can clearly see a downward trend,” he added, referring to the diminished number of abandoned baby cases.
Abandoned baby in Madera County
But abandonments still happen. The most recent case involves a newborn girl who was left on a rural Madera County road on Feb. 11.
A Fresno Bee newspaper carrier was out on his route early that morning when he discovered the child, who was wearing a flannel onesie and had her umbilical cord still attached.
The baby girl has since been treated and released from Valley Children’s Hospital. The sheriff’s office said Madera County’s Department of Social Services took custody of the baby and placed her with a foster family, which is the immediate step after a baby has been surrendered.
The search remains for the mother of the baby as forensic investigators test evidence left behind to identify the woman.
The state’s latest information did not record any recent safe surrenders or abandonments in Madera County.
‘No reason’ to abandon
The Madera County case shocked and saddened Robinson, the Visalia mother of two safely surrendered children.
“It breaks my heart. It’s a baby, they can’t do anything, they can’t take care of themselves,” Robinson says. “All they have to do is go to a hospital or a fire station and if no harm has been done to the baby, they’re scot-free.”
Robinson’s relationship with her two adopted children is a particularly special one, she says. As an adopted child herself, she says she understands how her children might feel on the topic once they get older. Her children recently asked if they could see their biological mother. She told them it wasn’t possible.
She says she reminds her children that they are “a special kind of adoption” – “they’re safe surrenders.”
Robinson was adopted by her mother’s cousin when she was about 6 years old. Her grandmother had looked after her for some time before the adoption became official. The family, which lived in Tehachapi at the time, held a large gathering to celebrate the adoption, and Robinson remembers feeling overwhelmed.
She says she is thankful she had somebody who wanted to look after her. She holds that special bond with her own adopted children who were given up through the Safely Surrendered Baby law.
“I think that can benefit me later when they have questions. ‘Well, I know what you’re going through. I felt the same. I understand.’” she says, sighing deeply.
Robinson says she struggles to understand how any parent could abandon a baby instead of surrendering it lawfully; it’s even harder when little is known about why mothers choose to abandon their babies. She and her husband always knew they wanted to adopt, and she says she’s lucky to have found out about the law and eventually foster Tyler and Willow before closing the adoption.
“I don’t see how anybody can lose. There’s people who can’t have kids, or want to adopt and then they have a chance at a newborn,” she says.
Jennifer Rexroad, executive director of the California Alliance of Caregivers, says foster parents who are looking to adopt tend to take in newborns, like the Robinsons. She says it’s easier to help them grow safe and healthy.
“The intention of the foster parent is to reunify,” Rexroad says. In the meantime, foster parents oversee a child’s needs. “Everything that child needs to thrive,” Rexroad says.
The 14-day period between a baby’s surrender and possible reclaim was the toughest part for Robinson when she took in Tyler and Willow. The law allows a birth parent to reclaim the child and they are given an identifying bracelet to help match them with the baby.
“That was terrible for us,” Robinson says “We never heard anything, but just knowing that somebody could come. We wanted to keep the baby.”
Years later, Robinson advocates for parents to foster and adopt babies. The Safely Surrendered Baby law helped her start her own family, and she hopes many more young children can be helped through it.
“It could decrease the number of children in the foster system if they are surrendered to begin with,” Robinson says. “Instead of life with a parent that possibly doesn’t know how to care for a child or just straight up gives up and exposes their children to harmful situations later in life.”
Weston, at the state office, said the law prioritizes confidentiality, and encourages the safe surrender option so parents don’t need to abandon a baby in an unsafe environment.
“We firmly believe that there’s no reason someone should abandon a baby,” Weston said.
31 surrenders in Fresno County
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors established 50 safe surrender sites at fire stations since 2009, according to Tricia Gonzalez, deputy director of child welfare at the Fresno County Department of Social Services.
The increase came after an audit by the state requested upgrades to the law’s implementation. The audit also found a lack of medical history obtained from mothers made it difficult to predict a baby’s health conditions. the confidential nature of the law also makes it difficult to determine which mothers are likely to abandon their babies or surrender, an audit said.
Gonzalez said mothers who choose to surrender babies are offered a confidential questionnaire that asks about them to provide any useful medical history and background. But, while the survey is kept anonymous, giving up that information is optional, Gonzalez said.
Since 2001, Fresno County has seen 31 babies surrendered safely. Only on a few occasions was a baby ever reclaimed by its birth parents, according to Gonzalez. The 2017 spike of surrendered babies statewide is encouraging for Gonzalez, just as it is for Weston and Robinson.
“An increase actually can be hopeful,” Gonzalez said. “That tells me that it’s a very important law and a very important resource for families that are desperate. It’s what we want to see.”