State

Motive elusive in girl's death

A newborn girl, dressed in a tiny pink outfit and wrapped in a blanket. A mother's dream.

But this Turlock infant, found in a Dumpster, lies dead at the Stanislaus County coroner's office.

And understanding what compelled her mother, whom police identified as a 19-year-old Turlock woman, to leave her there will take time to understand.

Police believe Jessica Mae Betts is the mother of the newborn found Nov. 8 in a Dumpster in a Save Mart parking lot in Turlock. They arrested her Thursday on suspicion of first-degree murder.

Kristi Ah You, chief deputy coroner, said DNA evidence has been sent to a state Department of Justice lab to confirm Betts is the mother.

Ah You said people have called to donate money, offer their time and lend support. The Ceres Cemetery has donated a plot and grave marker, and Eaton Family Funeral and Cremation Service in Modesto will help with the burial, she said. Someone donated the pink outfit and blanket the newborn may be buried in.

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"The community is very concerned," Ah You said. "Just about every funeral home in town has called and asked to help."

Ah You is in contact with Betts' family to plan the funeral.

Betts, a 2007 graduate of Beyer High in Modesto, was stoic and seemed to have little remorse during a two-hour interview, police said. But authorities acknowledged Betts could have been in shock.

She is being held without bail at the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center in Modesto. She is scheduled to appear in court Monday, according to jail records.

Attempts to contact her family Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.

Police said Betts was living with other people in Turlock, who seemed to be unaware of her pregnancy. Police believe Betts is not married and are trying to find the newborn's father.

Jan Viss, the assistant director for the county Community Service Agency's Child and Family Services division, couldn't comment on Betts' situation. But she said women can be fearful and try to hide their pregnancies for a variety of reasons. Among them: fear of their family's reaction, cultural taboos, domestic violence or sexual abuse.

"She could be in such a state of fear that she may be denying that she's pregnant," Viss said.

Heather Smith, a licensed family therapist in Modesto, said the brain, and its decision-making and reasoning skills, is not fully developed by age 19.

"You may be impulsive and not want to get into trouble or be judged," Smith said. "You're fueled by that fear."

In 1995, a 19-year-old abandoned her newborn on a canal bank after delivering her baby girl on the bathroom floor of her parents' rural Oakdale home.

Jeneane Jackson's parents mistook her pregnancy for pudginess. Jackson said she mistook her labor pains for cramps.

Why didn't she tell anyone?

"Because I wasn't married, I guess. I don't know," Jackson told the court during her 1995 trial for felony child endangerment and abandonment.

A farmer found the newborn and took her to a hospital. Rescue workers named her Baby Angel. Jackson was convicted and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

There's a legal way to surrender a baby. The Safely Surrendered Baby Law encourages parents or people with lawful custody to leave an infant at a "safe surrender site" within 72 hours of the child's birth.

The law provides a safe place for babies, protects parents from prosecution for child abandonment, does not require names be given and allows parents at least 14 days to reclaim the baby.

Since the law was enacted in 2001, six babies have been surrendered in Stanislaus County, according to the county Commu- nity Service Agency's Child and Family Services division.

Christine Soeth, who oversees inves- tigations on surrendered babies for the agency's Child and Family Services division, said posters on the law usually are posted at the safe surrender sites, such as hospitals, where the pregnant women may not see them. She'd like to see them placed at high schools and colleges, too.

Soeth said 251 babies have been surrendered in California since 2001.

"I would say the word is getting out there," Soeth said.

On the afternoon of Nov. 8, Turlock police received a report that an infant had been found in a Dumpster at the Save Mart parking lot in the 1600 block of Lander Avenue.

The infant was warm to the touch but appeared to be dead when emergency crews arrived, police said. The infant was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

The infant's body was found in a white Target bag, with the umbilical cord attached, according to the man who found her. Jeff Merrow, 49, of Turlock said the girl was blue and didn't seem to be breathing.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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