Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe was at Cerritos Regional Park a few years ago when a 9-year-old boy walked up to him, wrapped his arms around his leg and said that he was “number 39”.
Since Knabe launched the county’s Safe Surrender program in 2002 allowing parents or legal guardians to deliver newborns to hospitals or fire stations without the threat of arrest for child abandonment, he’s met dozens young people whose lives have been saved thanks to the program.
He still admits that he gets emotional whenever he meets an abandoned child.
“I cried,” Knabe said in a recent phone interview. “He could be killed or thrown away… These children marked my life.
Since Los Angeles County officials enacted the Safe Surrender program in 2002, the number of abandoned infants has decreased while the number of abandoned children has increased dramatically. The program, officials say, continues to be effective in providing a lifesaving alternative to mothers who would otherwise leave their newborns behind.
In 2000, California passed Senate Bill 1368, also known as the “Safe Haven” law, decriminalizing the act of newborn abandonment, allowing parents who would otherwise leave their babies in the toilet public places, parks or dumpsters to hand them over to personnel on fire. stations.
Knabe met the law after hearing on the news that a little boy had been thrown into a dumpster. The boy survived. But when Knabe contacted various county departments about the baby abandonment law, no one seemed to know.
It was 2001 and not a single baby was safely abandoned in Los Angeles County that year. While 14 newborns were abandoned in public spaces, only three of them survived, according to figures provided by county officials.
In 2002, Knabe introduced a motion, which was unanimously approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, designating fire stations as surrender sites.
The goal of the program, Knabe added, was to educate mothers about their options, so they “don’t have to think about throwing out a baby.”
The program has helped women or other legal guardians deliver newborns less than 3 days old without asking questions. The law also gave parents a 14-day period to collect their abandoned children.
“I can’t imagine being so desperate not to have a friend or family member or someone to talk to instead of making the decision to throw my baby away,” Knabe said. “That’s the big deal.”
Between 2001 and 2019, 189 newborns were safely abandoned in county-designated sites and 140 of them were adopted. In 2020, 16 children were discharged safely and 17 babies were discharged in 2021, according to figures provided by a county official.
Since 2001, 82 infants have been found abandoned in Los Angeles County; 22 of those infants survived and 60 were found dead, according to a report prepared by the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Although it has been difficult to obtain convincing data on mothers who leave their babies in designated sites, the figures collected by LA County describe women who are often desperate, lacking financial and other support.
The county report also shows that mothers who abandoned or abandoned their children generally did not fit the stereotypical profile expected of a young single teenager.
In fact, the women who have used the program for the past 20 years range in age from 15 to 47. They came from different socio-economic statuses, reporting substance abuse habits, lack of financial resources and housing. Some of them tried to hide their pregnancy, fearing the reactions of their families, according to the report.
In one case, a woman in her 20s gave up her child after revealing she was in a relationship with a man who supported her financially but did not want to take care of the baby. Several women said their pregnancies were unplanned or the result of sexual assault.
Unstable housing and living conditions have been a common reason for abandoning infants in recent years, officials said.
In 2018, at least five of the 15 mothers who safely delivered their newborns said they were homeless. The following year, in eight cases, financial hardship and limited economic ability to care for a baby were cited as the primary reason for dropout. In 2020 and 2021, homelessness was cited about four to six times out of 16 children handed over, officials said.
Most of the children who were abandoned and returned were from areas of lower socioeconomic status, officials said.
Abandoned children reaching college age are also eligible for scholarships through the Don Knabe Safe Surrender Scholarship Fund, administered by the Long Beach Community Foundation.
But scholarships, Knabe said, often go unused because parents choose not to tell their children about their adoption.
“Some parents never told their kids they made it safe and that’s their right,” Knabe said. “That’s how we protect everyone.”
Jill Birdwell received a call from an adoption agency in 2009 and was given 15 minutes to decide if she wanted to adopt a baby girl.
Birdwell called her husband, asked him to pack some baby clothes, and headed to the hospital.
When she arrived to pick up newborn Adriana, Birdwell, 53, discovered she was a Safe Surrender child.
The moment she laid eyes on the girl, Birdwell said, she loved her and knew she was hers. After two weeks had passed and no one had come forward to claim Adriana, Birdwell said she was “breathing a side of relief that no one was going to take her.”
When Adriana was 3 years old, Birdwell was driving her with Olivia, another adopted daughter, when the girls suddenly asked her when they were coming out of her stomach.
“I said, ‘Adriana, that nice lady wasn’t in a good position and didn’t have a job, so dad and I fought for you and dad and I went to court and made sure you be part of our family because I couldn’t have babies at that time,” she said.
Birdwell, who now lives in Long Beach with her family, later found out that Adriana’s mother was in her 20s and lived on the streets and came to the hospital in labor. She took care of Adriana in her room for two days. When the mother came out, she contacted hospital social services and handed over her daughter.
“I constantly pray for her,” Birdwell said. “I thank the Lord for doing the right thing because she was 20 and living on the streets.”
Birdwell said it was important to make sure people know about the program, especially those who are in the country illegally and don’t speak English.
“How do we make them understand that they won’t be deported if they abandon this baby? ” she said. “I was standing on top of the hill and shouting in my loudest voice, ‘Please don’t do this.’ ”
Birdwell said women need to be aware that “there’s a mommy and daddy out there who would give their right arm or give their left leg and move mountains for a baby.”
One of the main goals of the program, Knabe said, is to make sure women are aware of options that could potentially save a child’s life.
These days, “you rarely hear a baby being thrown away,” he said. ” It is a success. Lives are saved.