Behind the Tragedy Of Discarded Babies

It seems incomprehensible - hiding a pregnancy, delivering a baby in secret, and killing the newborn or leaving the child to die.

But a recent spate of such incidents - and the intense publicity surrounding them - point to a society in conflict over teen sexuality and a huge communication gap between the generations.

"In these infanticide cases, like teen suicides, they say nobody knew," says Robert Butterworth, a child trauma psychologist in Los Angeles. "But like in suicide, someone - usually a close friend - generally knew, but there is this code or ethic that you can't go to adults."

Peer-counseling programs, which have been established in many high schools across the nation, can help end the isolation a teenage girl may feel upon learning she is pregnant, experts say. But parents are the primary educators about sexuality, they add, and the education needs to be ongoing, not just one talk.

In recent months, several neo-naticides have shocked the public, indicating the problem may be more prevalent than most people think.

* A trial begins in September in the case of a Delaware college couple charged with killing their newborn last fall.

* Ten days ago, a prom-going high school senior gave birth in a restroom stall, apparently placed the baby in the trash, and returned to the dance floor.

* Just weeks earlier, a similar case was reported in New Jersey, another near Boston, and one in greater Seattle. In the Seattle area, six such cases have come to light in the past two years.

In fact, neonaticides in the US number at least 250 cases a year, says Jon'a Meyer, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., who has studied infanticide. It's difficult to determine an accurate number, because many more cases likely go undetected, she says.

ABANDONING babies is hardly a new phenomenon. Foundling hospitals were infamous throughout Europe and in New York until the 19th century, notes Shari Thurer, a professor of psychology at Boston University who has written a book on the history of infanticide.

Throughout history, babies were discarded mainly for economic reasons. But in the current cases, poverty does not appear to be a major factor: Many of the young women have come from middle- and upper-middle-class families.

The discarded babies speak to the desperation these teens often feel, experts say. Shame also plays a role, they say, because these girls may feel they're not supposed to get pregnant, having access to contraception services that poorer girls do not. As a result, they deny the pregnancy and hide it from everyone - their parents, their boyfriends, and even siblings with whom they share rooms.

"It's literally her against the rest of the world," says Dr. Meyer. "She feels she has no one to bring in to help make a rational decision. She's overwhelmed with the pregnancy."

Communication about sexuality, as about drug use and teen suicide, is lacking between parents and teens, most experts agree. Part of the reason is that adults themselves feel uncertain about where they come down on the debates over sexual activity, contraception, and abortion - and they certainly feel uncomfortable talking about these issues with their teenagers.

"As a society, we are very conflicted and confused about our views of sexuality," says Cindy Muhar, program manager for adolescent services at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. She says adults know kids are sexually active, but don't want to give them the "straight scoop" on sex.

An informal poll of a high school classroom revealed that 85 percent of the students "had no idea how their parents felt about sex before marriage," Ms. Muhar says.

Opening the channels of communication takes courage and sensitivity, but it is important for kids to know they can come to their parents in times of need, say experts.

"Parents need to take advantage of teachable moments," Muhar says. If kids are singing words to a song that are sexually explicit, ask them if they know what the words really mean and discuss it with them. If a TV show airs an episode that deals with sex or pregnancy, use the opportunity to discuss the subjects with kids.

"If we can acknowledge it's uncomfortable, that helps kids as well," she adds.

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