Safe Surrender Campaign Goes Multilingual in L.A. County
It's been decades since he responded to that 9-1-1 call, but Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief Luke Claus still thinks of the newborn who was thrown away, as though the infant was garbage, into a trash bin in South Los Angeles.
When another baby was found dead in another trash bin last month, this time in South El Monte, the veteran firefighter could not keep the frustration out of his voice. "It could've been so different, so easily," he said.
For three babies born in the aftermath of that tragedy, it was indeed different.
Their birth mothers took advantage of a state law known as Safe Surrender -- or Safe Haven -- and handed them over to hospitals in Los Angeles, Van Nuys and Lancaster, no questions asked.
Now those babies are in the loving embrace of prospective adoptive parents, though two remain hospitalized, according to the county Department of Children and Family Services.
County Supervisor Don Knabe struggles to understand why newborns are still being discarded like refuse when Safe Surrender has been in the books since 2001. "This makes me realize that we still have a long way to go," he said. "We still have a lot to do,
Using a $500,000 grant from First 5 LA, which was designated to put a portion of tobacco tax revenue toward the care of young children, the county has launched a multilingual campaign to increase awareness about Safe Surrender.
Billboards and posters in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean have been plastered on trains, buses, bus shelters, malls and coin laundries; bumper stickers and brochures are being handed out at churches and health providers; and public-service announcements are blaring on local radio and television. The website babysafela.org now includes an interactive map for pinpointing the nearest safe-surrender drop-off sites.
"We're reaching out as far as we possibly can to help these desperate women and let them know they have a better choice," Knabe said.
Deanne Tilton Durfee, executive director of the L.A. County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN), said wide outreach is the key to preventing further tragedy.
"There is no common profile for women who abandon or surrender their babies," she said. "They are all ages, all races, from all regions. Some are struggling mothers who already have several other children, and then there's that USC student who abandoned not one but two babies."
ICAN has tallied 110 safe surrenders and 71 abandonments since the state law took effect 12 years ago. Durfee clarifies, however, that the number of abandonments may be understated because babies flushed down toilets or pitched into the sea are sometimes never discovered.
Kerry Silverstrom's son was among those given up for adoption rather than left for dead.
"His birth mother was on her way to school when she went into the bathroom of Downey Regional Medical Center," said Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors. "She had felt pressure (on her pregnant abdomen), but it was four to six weeks before her due date, so she didn't necessarily know that she was about to give birth.
"When she saw that the baby's head was crowning, she started screaming for help, and it just so happened that a labor-and-delivery nurse was walking by, after coming from the human resources office. The nurse ended up assisting in the birth of our son -- in the bathroom."
Gus Silverstrom is now seven and a half and adored by his adoptive parents, despite being recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"We've been asked the question over and over, 'Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?' and my answer is, '100 percent hell yes!' " said the 56-year-old proud mom. "We love him with all our heart and our soul. He's our family."
Safe Surrender allows parents and legal guardians to hand over a one- to three-day-old infant bearing no signs of abuse or neglect to hospitals, fire stations or other designated location without fear of arrest for child abandonment. The initial awareness campaign featured the slogan "No Shame, No Blame, No Names."
The birth parents have 14 days to change their mind and reclaim their child; otherwise he or she will be put up for adoption. Additional information on the process is available on the website or by calling 877-222-9723.
Fire Chief Daryl Osby is grateful for Safe Surrender, as he's had to respond to women performing self-induced home abortions. "They thought that was the only option they had," he said. "It was a very trying experience for me, because I have two daughters myself."
With the dead baby in South L.A. still on his mind, Claus recalled helping a newborn brought to the Pomona fire station in 2005. "A man knocked on the door, said he was the uncle of the birth mother and asked, in broken English, 'Can I surrender this baby?' " he said.
"We could tell he was worried about it, nervous about whether he was doing the right thing, but we told him, 'Yes, come in, please.' " And with that, a life was saved.
Silverstrom hopes more birth mothers will take advantage of Safe Surrender, so that unwanted babies can become just the opposite. "Caring for my son -- even just touching his cheek -- it's such an overwhelming feeling," she said. "It's pure love."
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