Left for Dead 

For governments trying to save abandoned babies in Alameda County, the plan is no plan.

On the night of June 2, a seventeen-year-old girl was rushed into the emergency room of San Leandro Hospital. She was bleeding excessively between her legs. Her teenage boyfriend, who had driven her there, was as nervous as a speed freak when he spoke to doctors, a hospital worker later recalled. The young man calmed down long enough to explain: He was at his girlfriend's home, and they were hanging out, when she just started bleeding.

The teenager, "Nancy Tran" for the purposes of this article, was hoisted onto a gurney and attended to by a team of nurses. One removed Nancy's sweatpants and made a disturbing discovery: A recently severed umbilical cord.

The nurse asked the teenager where she had given birth. Nancy denied ever having been pregnant.

After a hospital worker called the San Leandro police, a patrol officer visited the Trans' family home near Interstate 880, where Nancy's parents were watching television. Inside one of the bathrooms, officer Scott Cagle discovered evidence that indicated the girl had delivered a baby on the floor. A pair of bloodied jeans was found balled up beneath her bed. A few minutes later, Cagle and fellow officer Shawn Wilson searched outside the house for the infant's body, which they found in a garbage can. A truck from Fire Station Number 13 arrived at about 10:40 p.m. with hopes of resuscitating the infant.

One firefighter later recalled the incident, using the terse vernacular of people who've witnessed something grave and wish to put it out of their minds. "When we got there, the baby was no longer viable," he said. "It had been down too long."

Just how long "Baby Tran" had been down remains unknown to perhaps everyone except its mother. Determining the precise cause of such deaths is a difficult task for coroners: The baby could have suffocated from fluids trapped in the lungs; died of exposure from an untied umbilical cord; or been strangled by the same cord. Unlike the typical adult homicide victim, the body of a deceased newborn leaves few telltale clues. When the official cause of death is released in the coming weeks, Baby Tran's death certificate will simply read "Unexplained death during unattended vaginal delivery," according to Michael Yost of the Alameda County Coroner's Bureau.

Nancy's parents were stunned as they watched their placid suburban home turn into a crime scene. According to Sgt. Robert Dekas, who interviewed the couple that evening, the Trans were "totally unaware of what had happened in their home. They were cooperative and helpful, but they didn't know what had gone on until the moment we showed up."

Sgt. Dekas also interviewed Nancy's sisters and her boyfriend, who were equally shocked by her pregnancy and birth. As for Nancy, Sgt. Dekas described her emotional state as "a combination of denial and confusion."


The Abandoned Baby Glut

To those paying attention, it appears there has been a glut of abandoned babies in the greater Bay Area this summer. Including Baby Tran, at least five infants -- three of whom were found dead -- were abandoned by their mothers. And just last week, a newborn boy was found alive in a Dumpster in San Juan Capistrano.

Each story seems to outdo the next in the unconscionable details. In San Jose, a baby was left in a shopping cart behind a dive bar named Coconut Willies. In Palo Alto, a 22-year-old mother stashed her dead newborn behind the Days Inn where she worked. Another mother in Palo Alto moved out of her apartment and left her dead child behind for her landlady to discover. In Salinas, a woman delivered her child into the sewage of a portable toilet; the child was later rescued, and remains in critical condition.

In truth, said neonaticide expert Michelle Oberman, a visiting law professor at Santa Clara University, this does not constitute an epidemic. The state's reported rate of neonaticide, defined as infanticide within 24 hours of birth, is set to reach eleven by year's end, just as it has every year since at least 2001. Nationwide, the annual rate has held steady at around three hundred for several years -- if indeed the data is accurate.

Counting abandoned infants is an oddly imprecise business. California's Department of Social Services and the federal Department of Health and Human Services rely on nothing more authoritative than news accounts to compile their statistics. In 1999, an inexplicable rash of dumped-baby stories graced newspapers and airwaves nationwide, according to a 2000 report from the Child Welfare League of America. Even though civilization appeared to be crumbling one abandonment at a time, there was no evidence to suggest that anything had changed except the sensibilities of reporters. "There is virtually no information on the scope of the problem," researchers concluded in their report. "There is no evidence that there was an accompanying increase in actual abandonment."

Nonetheless, lawmakers across the country responded by enacting so-called safe-haven laws. In California, legislators passed the Safely Surrendered Baby Law, which allows women to leave their newborns at drop zones such as hospitals and fire stations with no questions or risk of prosecution. By 2001, when the law took effect, 35 states allowed women to surrender babies anonymously without prosecution. The common refrain was, "If we save one baby", the law is a success.

Yet the program works only if women know about it. After California's law took effect, officials left county governments to promote the campaign, leading to wildly uneven results. Los Angeles County waged an aggressive campaign, and lawmakers there recently boasted of saving their 26th child since 2001 -- eight in 2004 alone. In Contra Costa County, the Board of Supervisors launched a program in July of 2003, and two babies have been saved to date.

In Alameda County, by comparison, no campaign has yet been waged, and no dollars have been earmarked to create one. Since the law passed, only one newborn has been turned in to an Alameda County drop zone -- earlier this year in Pleasanton. Meanwhile, at least three local infants have been discarded and found dead in the same time frame.


The Neighborhood

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