Television reporter Jodi Brooks had covered plenty of stories about abandoned babies - bundled up in a dumpster, hidden in a backpack, left to die in the woods.
But when she heard one with a happier ending - a baby left safely at the door of a church adoption agency - inspiration struck. Lives could be saved, she thought, if women who felt unable to cope could leave their newborns in caring hands, without fear of being thrown in jail for abandonment. Before long, she had enlisted local hospitals, social-service agencies, and the district attorney to make it happen.
That program in Mobile, Ala., is one of a growing number of experiments around the United States designed to stem what some see as an unprecedented spate of abandoned-infant deaths.
Dissatisfied with simply locking up women after a child dies, communities are taking steps to address the root problems - among them drug addiction, post-partum depression, and youthful ignorance or shame.
"These women are pushed to the brink, with seemingly no exit option, and therefore abandoning their child is their exit option," says Gordana Rabrenovic, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University in Boston. "If you provide them an alternative to abandoning the baby, they will do it."
In Houston, for instance, billboards that implore "Don't Abandon Your Baby" publish a hot line for desperate mothers. In Pittsburgh, several-dozen volunteers put "Baskets for Babies" in front of their homes, explaining babies would be safe if left there. And lawmakers in California and Kentucky have introduced bills to protect women from prosecution if they leave their babies with emergency workers.
In Mobile, efforts haven't completely eliminated abandonment, but at least they have made it safer. Since the program started in November 1998, no dead infants have been found, and three newborns have been brought in by their mothers for adoption. By contrast, Ms. Brooks says, there were 19 infant deaths in the area in the previous 1-1/2 years.
One young mother even reclaimed her baby after getting counseling, an example that underscores the goal not only of saving the babies, but also of helping the mothers tap into support services.
"We have so many services in our area, but [now we're] doing aggressive outreach ... going to areas where these mothers might be - clinics, schools, churches," says Judy Hay, spokeswoman for Harris County Child Protection Services in Texas.
That department is one of nearly 30 agencies in the Houston area participating in a Baby Abandonment Task Force. The group formed last year after a report showed 13 babies had been abandoned in only 10 months, several of whom died.
Unlike Mobile, Houston does not guarantee anonymity or freedom from prosecution. The difference reflects a disagreement over whether such promises are necessary or fair to the children.
Walking away, no questions asked, "just cannot be an option," says Ms. Hay. "You're really condemning another individual to go through life with that gut-wrenching question, 'Who am I?' "
A new Texas law does allow women who are being prosecuted to claim as a defense that they took their new child to a hospital or fire station unharmed.
But that may not be enough for many troubled mothers, says the Rev. Andrew Cozzens, co-chairman of an abandonment-prevention program near St. Paul, Minn. "Essential to the success of the program is protecting the woman's confidentiality," he says. To get immunity from prosecution for abandonment, she must bring her newborn to the hospital within 72 hours. She has six months to work with child-welfare officials to reclaim the baby.
Because these efforts are so new - Minnesota's just started this month - "there certainly are a lot of what-if scenarios," Mr. Cozzens says. "But community leaders agree that all the 'what ifs' don't add up to the price of a human life...."
Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, says it's a step in the right direction to remove some of the legal proceedings these women face.
The current child-welfare system, he says, is quick to take a child away from impoverished or otherwise struggling birth parents. For those who love their children enough to consider giving them up for a better life, he says, the best approach is to "reach out before they abandon the child."
Poverty is not always a factor, though. Some of the cases that have provoked the most public outrage, in fact, have featured young couples from well-off families who hid the girl's pregnancy and then sought to hide the baby as well.
Professor Rabrenovic offers a variety of possible explanations for such cases. Sex-education classes that stress only abstinence have left girls with little information and few places to turn if they are too ashamed to tell their families about a pregnancy. And increasingly, access to abortion services can be difficult to find.
After the rash of abandonments in her Houston district last summer, US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) not only helped get the task force off the ground but also began drafting a federal bill to fill an information void she found shocking.
"Some of largest states don't keep data on abandoned babies," she says. "The only way we can provide a solution ... is to know the data."
But it seems many areas won't wait for those numbers before they act.
Brooks says her e-mail at WPMI-TV has been "blowing up" with requests for information, and by next month, Pensacola, Fla., will be added to the list of communities reaching out to help troubled mothers and their newborns.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society