Confusion surrounds baby surrender law

One mother in San Joaquin County thought leaving her baby outside a fire station was close enough. Another put hers on the steps of a funeral home, mistaking it for a church.

Seven years after state legislators allowed parents to legally leave their newborns at hospital emergency rooms and other places, including fire stations in most California counties, child advocates around the region said most people still aren't aware of the law.

There is even confusion among law enforcement. After the arrest last month of 19-year-old Jessica Mae Betts, a Turlock woman charged with first- degree murder who authorities allege dumped her newborn daughter in a trash bin, Turlock police said there was a fire station just a mile and a half away where Betts could have safely surrendered her child within three days of the birth.

Betts, who remains in custody, has pleaded not guilty.

But the rules are different in Stanislaus County than in most of California.

In 2001, the county Board of Supervisors voted that only hospital emergency rooms could serve as "safe surrender" sites for parents. That means only the county's five emergency rooms qualify, compared with the 54 fire stations and hospital emergency rooms in neighboring San Joaquin County. Merced County has 25 safe surrender spots.

Since the law was enacted in 2001, six babies have been surrendered in Stanislaus County. No figures were available for San Joaquin and Merced counties.

"I do know that the more places you have, the more advertising you have -- and fire stations are fairly abundant -- that if parents see the signs, you have much more chance that they would know where to go," said David Erb, deputy director of children's services in San Joaquin County.

The law's motto is "no name, no shame, no blame."

Parents can stay anonymous, but they get wristbands that match bands put on their children, in case they change their mind within 14 days. They must leave the child in the hands of someone at a safe surrender location.

Stanislaus County supervisors based their vote on a need for immediate medical care for infants and mothers. The recommendation stated that hospital emergency rooms were within reasonable driving distance and would reduce the liability issues of using public safety locations.

Fire stations well-equipped

Oscar Ramirez, with the state Department of Social Services, said many fire stations have emergency medical technicians on staff and firefighters have medical training to help a mother and child in distress.

"They would be able to take that child and not let it suffer any further," Ramirez said.

Stanislaus County Fire Warden Gary Hinshaw said the majority of county fire stations are staffed full time. In other counties, fire stations not staffed full time have left instructions for people on where to go to surrender a newborn.

The Escalon Fire Department in San Joaquin County has instructions on its Web site and at the station, Hinshaw said.

Even though fire stations are not designated safe surrender spots in Stanislaus County, Hinshaw said he is confident that firefighters would step in to help.

"If someone showed, the fire personnel would do the right thing," he said.

The Stanislaus County district attorney's office would not prosecute a parent for dropping a newborn off at a fire station as long as the baby had not been harmed or neglected.

"Every case must be evaluated on its own merits," Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees wrote in an e-mail. "However, I can tell you that if a parent dropped off an otherwise healthy newborn under this statute to a fire station -- we would not seek prosecution of abandonment strictly based on a fire station not being an officially designated 'safe-surrender site' in our county."

Funding needed to advertise

Christine Soeth, who oversees child abuse investigations in Stanislaus County, said now might be a good time to re-evaluate the county's safe surrender policy.

Much of the problem lies with funding to advertise options -- including safe surrender and adoption -- to parents.

The Community Services Agency's Child and Family Services division applied for two grants in 2007, one to educate parents about the dangers of shaking their babies and another about safely surrendering babies to hospital emergency rooms.

Because of a rash of shaken babies, some who died and others who survived with major injuries, the safe surrender baby campaign did not get funding. A shaken baby campaign began that includes ads on buses and an educational program for new moms in area hospitals.

Soeth and Child and Family Services Assistant Director Jan Viss hope to leverage the Turlock tragedy to launch a campaign to distribute posters and brochures about where and how to surrender a baby.

The informational posters are free on the Internet, but nobody tracks where they are displayed.

Soeth and Viss want the posters in family resource centers, where workers are connected within their communities, adding that they should be hung in high school and colleges -- not just hospitals where pregnant woman may not seek prenatal care.

It's hard to know if more education would have made a difference for Betts, the Turlock 19-year-old who showed up in court Tuesday, shackled and her hair in two neat braids, smiling at her family.

But child advocates from San Joaquin to Merced counties said they know more can be done.

"In order for this to work, you would need lots of media attention in newspapers, TV, radio," said Erb, with San Joaquin County's Children's services. "We can get the word out in schools, get posters in waiting rooms. It's not advertised much, and there's not a lot of resources to advertise it."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at or 578-2337.