Left for Dead

For governments trying to save abandoned babies in Alameda County, the plan is no plan.

On the night of June 2, a seventeen-year-old girl was rushed into the emergency room of San Leandro Hospital. She was bleeding excessively between her legs. Her teenage boyfriend, who had driven her there, was as nervous as a speed freak when he spoke to doctors, a hospital worker later recalled. The young man calmed down long enough to explain: He was at his girlfriend’s home, and they were hanging out, when she just started bleeding.

The teenager, “Nancy Tran” for the purposes of this article, was hoisted onto a gurney and attended to by a team of nurses. One removed Nancy’s sweatpants and made a disturbing discovery: A recently severed umbilical cord.

The nurse asked the teenager where she had given birth. Nancy denied ever having been pregnant.

After a hospital worker called the San Leandro police, a patrol officer visited the Trans’ family home near Interstate 880, where Nancy’s parents were watching television. Inside one of the bathrooms, officer Scott Cagle discovered evidence that indicated the girl had delivered a baby on the floor. A pair of bloodied jeans was found balled up beneath her bed. A few minutes later, Cagle and fellow officer Shawn Wilson searched outside the house for the infant’s body, which they found in a garbage can. A truck from Fire Station Number 13 arrived at about 10:40 p.m. with hopes of resuscitating the infant.

One firefighter later recalled the incident, using the terse vernacular of people who’ve witnessed something grave and wish to put it out of their minds. “When we got there, the baby was no longer viable,” he said. “It had been down too long.”

Just how long “Baby Tran” had been down remains unknown to perhaps everyone except its mother. Determining the precise cause of such deaths is a difficult task for coroners: The baby could have suffocated from fluids trapped in the lungs; died of exposure from an untied umbilical cord; or been strangled by the same cord. Unlike the typical adult homicide victim, the body of a deceased newborn leaves few telltale clues. When the official cause of death is released in the coming weeks, Baby Tran’s death certificate will simply read “Unexplained death during unattended vaginal delivery,” according to Michael Yost of the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau.

Nancy’s parents were stunned as they watched their placid suburban home turn into a crime scene. According to Sgt. Robert Dekas, who interviewed the couple that evening, the Trans were “totally unaware of what had happened in their home. They were cooperative and helpful, but they didn’t know what had gone on until the moment we showed up.”

Sgt. Dekas also interviewed Nancy’s sisters and her boyfriend, who were equally shocked by her pregnancy and birth. As for Nancy, Sgt. Dekas described her emotional state as “a combination of denial and confusion.”


The Abandoned Baby Glut

To those paying attention, it appears there has been a glut of abandoned babies in the greater Bay Area this summer. Including Baby Tran, at least five infants — three of whom were found dead — were abandoned by their mothers. And just last week, a newborn boy was found alive in a Dumpster in San Juan Capistrano.

Each story seems to outdo the next in the unconscionable details. In San Jose, a baby was left in a shopping cart behind a dive bar named Coconut Willies. In Palo Alto, a 22-year-old mother stashed her dead newborn behind the Days Inn where she worked. Another mother in Palo Alto moved out of her apartment and left her dead child behind for her landlady to discover. In Salinas, a woman delivered her child into the sewage of a portable toilet; the child was later rescued, and remains in critical condition.

In truth, said neonaticide expert Michelle Oberman, a visiting law professor at Santa Clara University, this does not constitute an epidemic. The state’s reported rate of neonaticide, defined as infanticide within 24 hours of birth, is set to reach eleven by year’s end, just as it has every year since at least 2001. Nationwide, the annual rate has held steady at around three hundred for several years — if indeed the data is accurate.

Counting abandoned infants is an oddly imprecise business. California’s Department of Social Services and the federal Department of Health and Human Services rely on nothing more authoritative than news accounts to compile their statistics. In 1999, an inexplicable rash of dumped-baby stories graced newspapers and airwaves nationwide, according to a 2000 report from the Child Welfare League of America. Even though civilization appeared to be crumbling one abandonment at a time, there was no evidence to suggest that anything had changed except the sensibilities of reporters. “There is virtually no information on the scope of the problem,” researchers concluded in their report. “There is no evidence that there was an accompanying increase in actual abandonment.”

Nonetheless, lawmakers across the country responded by enacting so-called safe-haven laws. In California, legislators passed the Safely Surrendered Baby Law, which allows women to leave their newborns at drop zones such as hospitals and fire stations with no questions or risk of prosecution. By 2001, when the law took effect, 35 states allowed women to surrender babies anonymously without prosecution. The common refrain was, “If we save one baby”, the law is a success.

Yet the program works only if women know about it. After California’s law took effect, officials left county governments to promote the campaign, leading to wildly uneven results. Los Angeles County waged an aggressive campaign, and lawmakers there recently boasted of saving their 26th child since 2001 — eight in 2004 alone. In Contra Costa County, the Board of Supervisors launched a program in July of 2003, and two babies have been saved to date.

In Alameda County, by comparison, no campaign has yet been waged, and no dollars have been earmarked to create one. Since the law passed, only one newborn has been turned in to an Alameda County drop zone — earlier this year in Pleasanton. Meanwhile, at least three local infants have been discarded and found dead in the same time frame.


The Neighborhood

Nancy Tran and her family moved into their San Leandro neighborhood about a year ago, according to neighbor Trudy Hadler, who has lived on the same block for more than thirty years. Grenda Street is located just two blocks east of a freeway entrance, tucked behind an antiquated strip mall. Some of the homes are tributes to dead weeds and cobwebbed muscle cars, while others, such as Hadler’s, look cozy and well tended.

For Hadler, like most women who muse on the subject of baby abandonment, the entire scenario is a tragedy — albeit one that was wholly avoidable. Hadler expressed her astonishment in a series of questions: Was the girl alright? Did she survive? Did the baby live? How could no one know she was pregnant?

“There was a lot of anger when we heard about it,” Hadler said one afternoon while watering her lawn. “We were all wondering, ‘Who could do it? Who could do such a thing?'” Finally, she said of the child, “I would have taken it.”

As for figuring out which household the birth had occurred at, Hadler wasn’t sure. Standing on her porch, she rattled off the teenage girls who live in her neighborhood, pointing at their homes. Across the street and to the left, where a Range Rover was parked, she said, “She’s too small. Her head is the biggest thing on her.” Down the street and to the right, where a junky Honda was parked, Hadler said, “I don’t think she’s even in high school.”

Hadler and her neighbors hadn’t even considered the new family at the end of the block, the one with the young daughters. They have kept to themselves, she said, and since their house is on the corner it’s hard to see who is coming or going. A church at the end of the block attracts scores of unfamiliar cars to the area, so it’s hard to even know which car belongs to a parishioner and which to a resident. But since there’s often some activity at that end of the block, no one pays it much mind.

When Hadler considered the abandonment out loud, she first expressed concern for the mother, then complete infuriation with her. “I don’t know if we’re doing enough to teach these girls in the schools, or wherever,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a parenting problem or an education problem or what.” The more Hadler discussed the baby’s death, the more its well-being and not that of the mother shaped her concern. Before long, her empathy for Nancy was gone. “I don’t care what happened to the mother,” she said. “It was unfair to the baby.”


The Denial of Pregnancy

Getting inside the heads of such women has become a psychological puzzle over the past decade. A handful of trailblazing researchers and therapists are mining for clues to help them solve the most perplexing question: Why?

Women who commit infanticide are generally “very young, unmarried, physically healthy women who are pregnant for the first time and not addicted to substances,” according to a fact sheet published by UC Berkeley’s Abandoned Infants Assistance Resource Center in 2002. The most authoritative study to date was published last year by Dr. Margaret Spinelli, director of the Mental Health Program at New York State Psychiatric Institute. She reviewed psychological evaluations from sixteen girls and women who were incarcerated for neonaticide. Spinelli’s subjects had all performed unassisted deliveries. The majority were drug-free young women with no criminal records. The common thread Spinelli identified was that neonaticide is often preceded by “denial of pregnancy.”

The need to deny arose in many forms and was planted in varying ways. Outside pressures sometimes came from strict parents or intolerant boyfriends, Spinelli reported. Abuse had occurred in about half of the homes. Some of the women had mental disorders. And in some cases, the women were so uneducated about their bodies and reproductive systems that they simply were not aware that pregnancy was a consequence of intercourse.

“For many of these women, there is such a pressure not to be pregnant, the girl tells no one about it,” said Oberman, the neonaticide expert. “She won’t tell her teachers, she won’t tell her parents, she won’t tell her friends. … Essentially, she won’t even tell herself.”

For all these girls, Spinelli’s research suggests that the denial is impenetrable. All her subjects described their birthing experience as “watching themselves” from a disassociated, third-person perspective. Eleven said they endured no pain during birth, and the other five described the pain level as “not bad.” One woman actually likened the experience to a bowel movement. Afterward, most were unable to recall details of the episode.

Oakland defense attorney John Burris has represented two separate women who delivered their own children and allowed them to die. In both cases, he managed to win probation sentences for his clients, avoiding manslaughter or homicide charges. But those were different times. Burris was at his office one recent morning when he read a newspaper story about a twenty-year-old student who secretly gave birth at a Chico State University sorority house and was sentenced to six years in prison for infanticide. “Woo, six years,” he said. “My first reaction was: ‘I was lucky.’ The justice you receive is a function of the county you live in.”

Burris stays in contact with both of his clients, unlike some of the more reprehensible characters he’s represented. “They just weren’t criminals to me,” he said of the women. “There is a compelling human story behind their actions; there is a reason why they did these things.” In 1988, Burris represented one of the first mothers to draw national media outrage for her story of neglect. The woman, Oakland resident Deborah Harris, was in the midst of a long crack bender when she delivered twins, then fled. Both infants died.

“I certainly didn’t view her as a criminal,” Burris said. “So I focused on who she was as a person before she got hooked on drugs, and how, once addicted to crack, she went down this road. This was not a case of murder in the classic sense.”

In Burris’ more recent case, his then-24-year-old client Joanne De la Cruz gave birth over a wad of bath towels inside her UC Santa Cruz dorm room. De la Cruz later told a grand jury that she was on the telephone with her boyfriend while she cut the umbilical cord with scissors. De la Cruz disposed of her child in a Dumpster, then attended classes later that day. Authorities only learned of her actions six years later in 2001, after she’d revealed the episode during a therapy session.

Burris said both Harris and De la Cruz were “severely traumatized individuals” and delicate personalities to deal with. In De la Cruz’ case, Burris said, “it took years for her to come to, and consider what she’d done.” He appreciated the empathy local prosecutors displayed when interacting with his clients. “There was a sense that these were extremely vulnerable women,” he said. “Prosecuting these women would only compound the tragedy.”

Still, Oberman believes Burris was lucky to win probation for his clients. In recent years, she has witnessed an increase in the number of first-degree homicide charges brought against such mothers. An estimated two dozen cases annually start with first-degree murder charges being filed against the mother. In California, most such women still get sentenced to probation, Oberman said, but she is aware of two women serving life sentences. “The real problem is these events tend to blow the roofs right off the houses these women live in,” she added. “That’s the moment when everyone realizes what kind of denial they’ve all been living in.”


The Birth

The roof blew off Cheree Heagle’s house six months ago. Heagle is nineteen and lives in Lake Arrowhead, in San Bernardino County. At home alone on a Wednesday afternoon in early March, she delivered a baby girl in the family bathtub.

Heagle, who stands five foot seven, said her weight always has fluctuated between 140 and 150 pounds. Last fall, as usual, she said she put on a few extra pounds during the winter. During summers she typically exercises vigorously and loses weight; when the weather gets cold, she straps on her snowboard and adds a few pounds. Late last year she’d also taken a job as a waitress at an Italian restaurant, where she worked double shifts.

Heagle said that last October she “messed up” her birth control schedule for a short while. So she took a home pregnancy test, which came back negative. Two weeks later, she said, her period returned and she filed away any thoughts of being pregnant.

She said it never dawned upon her that she was pregnant because she escaped several telltale signs of pregnancy. Her weight gain was minimal, she continued to get her period regularly, and she suffered no morning sickness or midnight sprints to the bathroom. All she recalls during that time was being a tad moody. “There was nothing suspect,” she said.

The week before she gave birth, Heagle had two falling-outs: She broke up with her boyfriend and she quit her waitressing job. Later that week, she celebrated her grandmother’s birthday with family and friends at an Outback Steakhouse restaurant. “She looked great that night,” recalls her mother Rena. “She was wearing one of those cropped shirts and had her belly button ring showing. Her stomach just wasn’t flat; it was concave.”

The next morning, Heagle said, she woke up feeling groggy. Her lower back and abdominal muscles ached; she figured she was in for a round of epic menstrual cramps. She ran warm bathwater, then relaxed in the tub. Around noon that day, her father visited briefly to check in on his sick daughter. Heagle said she sent him away and got back in the tub.

“Five minutes after he left,” she said, “that’s when I heard something pop.”

Heagle felt a severe pain in her lower back. She looked down and saw the crown of an infant’s head between her legs. “I said, ‘Oh my God.'”

Heagle said she couldn’t feel the baby exiting her body. Submerged underwater, the infant looked purple. She felt another severe pain in her back. “When I felt the pain, I pushed real hard, once.”

In one slippery motion, Heagle said, the infant slid out from inside her, and floated face down. “She was all purple, so I didn’t know if something was wrong. I flipped her over and saw her face, and then I knew. She screamed; she’d be alright.”

The bath water was “as red as you can get it,” Heagle recalled. Knowing that she needed to cut the umbilical cord, she found a pair of scissors in the bathroom cabinet. Holding her child in one hand, Heagle said, she stood up and reached for the cabinet door. When she got the scissors, she cut the cord at the end closer to the child. “I just held the end that connected to her and pinched for a couple minutes until it just closed,” she said.

Back inside the tub, with her infant on her chest now, the sharp abdominal pains returned. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh God. Don’t tell me there’s another baby in there,'” she said. Instead, she pushed out the jelly-like remnants of the afterbirth.

In the next few hours, Heagle recalled, she reacted without thinking about what she was actually doing. She collected the afterbirth and tossed it into the bathroom trash can. She drained the tub and rinsed off her child and herself. In the kitchen, she microwaved a small heating pad, then wrapped the infant in an oversize black T-shirt and tucked the heating pad underneath.

Heagle warmed herself in towels, then rested with her infant on the couch. She recalled the sequences of wild options racing through her mind. “I thought of everything you could possibly imagine,” she said. “‘What’s my boyfriend going to think? What’s my mom going to think? Did I really just have a baby?’ I’m processing all of this. What am I going to do?”

She said she regained her strength — “I couldn’t move for an hour” — and padded the bottom of a pink laundry basket with blankets for her newborn to rest on. She took the basket to her car and drove fifteen minutes to Mountains Community Hospital. She said she parked her car near the front entrance and waited for thirty minutes, wondering what to do next.

Heagle recalled the television commercial that showed young mothers bringing their babies into a hospital. Now she was one of those girls. “I was getting scared, wondering if what I’d just done was the right thing, but I knew the best place to take her would be a hospital,” she said. “On the commercials, they tell you won’t get prosecuted, you won’t get in trouble.”

Heagle carried the laundry basket to a foyer just inside the doors, where she knew an attendant would find the baby immediately. She ran back to the car. “Then I went home and cried.”

The next day, Heagle said, she told her ex-boyfriend what she’d done, and the two decided to go back to the hospital to reclaim the baby. But the infant had already been collected by the county’s social services department and deposited into a foster care home.

“They told me they were really proud of me leaving the baby there, but that I wouldn’t be able to get it back,” Heagle recalled. “One social worker sat me down and started telling me that I’d never forgive myself for abandoning my baby, that I’d live with the guilt for the rest of my life. … But I didn’t feel like I’d abandoned my baby. I thought I’d surrendered it.”

Under California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law, when a mother relinquishes her infant she has 72 hours to reclaim it. But when she makes the initial drop, she needs to stick around long enough to obtain an ID bracelet. Heagle was unaware of the bracelet rule, and fled home before she could be identified. “I didn’t know how to react at the time,” she said. “I come from a close-knit family, but at that moment, I thought it was just me and her — all alone. I only knew one thing for sure: If I took her there she’d be safe and I’d have time to sort it out.”

In the following weeks, Heagle’s family waged a legal battle with the county Social Services to reclaim the child. The county initially viewed Heagle as a child abandoner and temporarily considered filing criminal charges against her since she had failed to identify herself at the hospital. But after test results verified Heagle’s status as the mother, the county relented, and returned the child. Haley Heagle, now six months old, was born at seven pounds and is a healthy baby girl.

Heagle’s mother Rena called Haley and the episode “a gift from God.” Many of the people who have questioned the story have wondered: How could she not know she was pregnant? “No one believes me,” Heagle herself conceded. “No one believes I did this.”

What Heagle identified as her monthly period was a “physiological impossibility, per se,” according to Dr. Kevin Smith, an ob-gyn and clinical faculty member at Stanford University Hospital. But Smith noted that several factors, including frequent intercourse or early separation from the placenta, can lead to bleeding during pregnancy. “I hear these stories all the time,” he said. “Young patients see bleeding, so they convince themselves it’s their period; thus, they’re not pregnant.”

Looking back to the pregnancy test she took in October, Heagle is sure that it showed negative, and when her period arrived, it only confirmed her suspicions. But is it possible she misread those results, and then cast herself into a denial of her own pregnancy? “No,” she said. “I was pretty worried about the pregnancy and I wanted to be as careful as possible when I took the test. I checked it to make sure.”

In the first hours Heagle spent with her newborn and wondered what to do, she said she contemplated everything except dumping her child. Those commercials were imprinted somewhere in the back of her brain, she said, and the dramatization of that girl going to the hospital made her aware of her options.

“You know, you look at these crazy situations and you go, ‘I wonder what I’d do if I was in that situation,'” Heagle recalled. “Well I was in that situation. I was there. And the thought of throwing her away or dropping her in a Dumpster just never occurred to me. Never. When I hear stories about mothers who do that, I still think about it and say, ‘How could you?'”


The Governmental Response

If the last thread of hope is the grainy memory of a commercial planted in the back of a young woman’s mind, it’s unlikely Nancy Tran ever saw that commercial. Unlike San Bernardino County, Alameda County has no campaign to advertise the Safely Surrendered Baby Law. After it passed in 2001, the state pitched in a paltry $500,000 for advertising, then left it to counties to enact their own campaigns. Some county governments have done a better job than others.

Los Angeles County has been hailed as the standard. In early 2002, media coverage of a discarded newborn caught the eye of County Supervisor Don Knabe, who authored legislation to assemble a task force on the subject. The county allocated $300,000 and raised an additional $700,000 from First Five, a national child advocacy group for children five and under. First Five ended up running the program, and within weeks, brochures and curriculums were written up, posted, and mailed out to county residents. “No shame, no blame, no names,” read the ad copy. The slogan aired in TV and radio commercials and appeared on billboards.

Since the campaign first began, the number of dead babies found in Los Angeles County has declined from eight dead in 2002 to only three so far in 2004. “If this hadn’t become a bee in Don’s bonnet, I honestly don’t know what the status would be,” program coordinator Garrison Frost said. “You can’t give him enough credit for starting this.”

Officials in Contra Costa, Monterey, Sacramento, and San Bernardino counties have since initiated the same program, many of them reusing the Los Angeles slogan. In mid-2003, Contra Costa started its program; the first surrendered child arrived eight months later. Although not as well funded or pervasive as the LA campaign, Contra Costa’s is at least under way.

Last summer, the board convened a Safe Surrender Baby Task Force and selected the Antioch Women’s Club to run the program. The club drafted “Safe Surrender Kits” for hospital workers and firefighters, alerting them to their new responsibilities. According to Mary Foran, the county’s assistant director of health services, the task force is currently working on a high school curriculum that will give teachers ideas how to work the message into a classroom discussion.

The connection between such campaigns and the rate of babies recovered is easily calculable, Frost said. “Before the campaign, let’s see — no babies safely surrendered,” he said. “Then in 2002, with the ad campaign in place, we got ten the first year. Eight the next year. Then eight already to start this year.”

Comparing Alameda County’s efforts to those of Los Angeles is futile. Since no one keeps statistics locally, it’s difficult to even say how many babies have been abandoned since the law took effect.

From the top down, county social service administrators and children’s advocates passed the buck on local enforcement of the law. Spokesman Rapone Anderson of the state Department of Social Services referred inquiries to Sylvia Myles of the county’s Social Services Agency. But that was news to Myles, who passed the buck back to the state, saying she was still waiting to hear about what steps to take: “I know someone is overseeing that, but I just don’t know who it is.”

The fact is, Alameda County has done nothing to implement the law or start a media campaign.

Gail Steele, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, acknowledged that her board has yet to address the law. “Finally the state does the right thing legislatively, and not enough people know about it,” she said. “It’s a shame.” Acknowledging that her county has lagged far behind compared to Los Angeles, Steele conceded that she should bring the issue to the attention of her peers.

Still, like many people, Steele wondered how any governmental action could break through the denial of a young woman capable of abandoning a newborn. “In some ways, I don’t know what we could do to do a better job,” she said. “I just don’t understand how someone could do that.”


The Knock

It’s a casual six-minute walk from where Baby Tran came into the world to Fire Station Number 13, where his teenaged mother could have surrendered her child without legal recourse. According to city records, the firefighters who arrived at Nancy’s home the night she gave birth made the drive in less than two minutes.

That night, Nancy eventually admitted delivering the baby. According to Lt. Stephen Pricco, she was surprised to learn that she was pregnant.

For now, Nancy’s future hangs in legal limbo. After a preliminary autopsy revealed that Baby Tran had indeed lived outside the womb, the investigation stalled. The police finished their work quickly, and according to Lt. Pricco are still waiting on the coroner’s office to submit its findings to the district attorney. But Pricco said the office has moved unusually slowly in this case, perhaps because the deputy coroner who performed the autopsy took a monthlong vacation in the middle of the process.

Nancy Tran delivered a baby boy. The final report will say that Baby Tran’s cause of death was “unexplained.” But in any world outside a courtroom, what cannot be explained? The imprecise explanation will most likely spare Nancy a homicide charge, but from a common-sense perspective, there’s really nothing to fudge here: She delivered her son and left him in a trash can.

“In all likelihood, she’ll walk,” Lt. Pricco said of the mother. “We’ve done our work on this end. We’ve sent it to the DA. But without an exact cause of death, it makes it hard.”

In the absence of a trial, Nancy Tran is likely to remain an enigma. Is she a criminal or is she a victim? The district attorney’s office has yet to make its determination. To Burris, she was a victim of circumstances so dark we cannot see them right now — and she has yet to be humanized to the world at large. To others, such as researcher Michelle Oberman, in many ways Nancy is a survivor, working her way through the tragedy that unfolded at her own feet. To her curious neighbor Trudy Hadler, Nancy remains a character of mystery: an unknown neighbor who committed an unfathomable act.

One afternoon this summer, the sound of laughter could be heard inside her home just before she answered the door. When Nancy appeared behind a screen door, she wore a tight green baby-doll shirt with the words “Hot Stuff” emblazoned across her chest in gold. She had on black sweatpants and stood barefoot, relaxed in the comfort of her home on summer break. She stood less than five feet tall. Her body carried a hundred pounds, tops. Her belly was flat.

She was polite, at first.

Are you the girl who recently gave birth? Here?

“Yes, I am.”

Are you feeling better these days?

“Yes.”

Then she was asked if she wanted to talk about her experience and she cast a defiant stare that said Get the hell off my porch, which was entirely her right. She shook her head one way and mumbled one-word answers, despite the soft tone of the conversation.

Her stare remained bold. But even more unsettling, beneath the fury, she seemed absent. This was where the denial lived.

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