Judging Public Reaction to Abandoned Baby Cases

This opinion appeared in the Chicago Tribuneon November 8, 1998

The cases of so-called "throw-away babies" have been plentiful this year.

News stories from New York, Chicago, Seattle and Houston - to name a few - have reported incidents in which newborns were found abandoned and alive in public bathrooms, airports, parks and churches.

This past summer an inquisitive Pomeranian sniffed out a cardboard box near Ocean Beach in San Francisco where its owner found a baby boy only hours old.

Media accounts usually emphasize the Dickensian aspect of these cases rather than the circumstances of the abandonment.

In San Francisco, for example, a report suggested that because the Pomeranian had been abandoned once, it may have sensed the infant's plight.

Although these stories frequently generate sympathetic public interest, they also unfortunately contribute to misunderstanding about the seriousness and nature of infant abandonment, leaving us uniformed about that complex circumstances that culminate in deserting a newborn.

Infants who are abandoned should not be viewed as subject of sweet, sad stories but as victims of child abuse. They are children who are left for a variety of reasons - desperation, fear, isolation, rape, mental illness, shame, poverty, addiction, selfishness--but left nonetheless.

In our public discussions of child abuse, infant abandonment often is not a central part of the conversation, adding to the impression that abandonment belongs in some other category and is not as critical as, for example, sexual abuse.

Part of the frustration lies in the difficulty of quantifying the problem. We are a nation that marches to the beat of statistics. "Show me the numbers" is the mantra that frequently determines whether a concern becomes a public issue. And yet because of its very nature, infant abandonment data - like most other child welfare data - is difficult to gather. The systems that respond to it are usually in crises mode or already too overloaded to devote adequate time to information gathering.

Public funds, moreover, have not been sufficiently allocated in such a way that might help strained systems collect data. Internationally, we gain some global insight into the problem. In the United Kingdom, for example, where the government has been monitoring the issue, statistics reveal a 300 percent increase in infant abandonment cases in the last decade.

Here at home, those working in the field estimate 57 babies a day are abandoned across the country.

Debbie Magnusen, founder and executive director of Project Cuddle in Costa Mesa, Calif., - a 24-hour hotline that deals with potential abandonment's - reports that the issue "has been a problem all along. We just have had a few recent cases that have brought it to light.

Just as the tenor of our conversations about infant abandonment needs to reflect the reality of the issue, so, too, should our thoughts about who is responsible. In nearly every account of recent infant abandonment cases, the phrase, "the mother is being sought," punctuates the story's conclusion.

Clearly mothers should be held accountable when they abandon newborns, but fathers must not be ignored or absolved of any responsibility. By rarely raising the question of a father's role in the abandoned child's life, the media assume that fathers are not there for the children they conceive. Although that neglect does indeed happen, media reports on infant abandonment should not simply erase and excuse fathers.

Attitudes about men and their remoteness toward children are deeply embedded in our consciousness. Stanley Seiderman, director of the Bay Area Male involvement Network, agrees.

"That kind of thinking is already there. That's why the media says it. They're reflecting society's depiction of 'family' as a mother and a child, as if fathers are invisible. Those attitudes are very difficult to change."

And changing those attitudes is in part what needs to be addressed in confronting the issue of infant abandonment. By targeting mothers in "throw-away baby" news stories, in the prosecution of the cases, and even in the way resources are designed to prevent newborn abandonment, we continue to say that women bear ultimate responsibility for child welfare.

Although there is nothing wrong with women being accountable to children, there is something very harmful in saying they are the only ones charged with that obligation.

Such a message encourages men to think it is manly to shirk responsibilities of parenting, it unfairly blames women when they are unable to shield children from abuse, and most profoundly, it perpetuates the misconception that separation of fathers from children is normal.

We need a fuller picture of the parents and the circumstances of infant abandonment before we can effectively confront the issue. Simply judging mothers and hunting them down does not help us understand their actions. We need to know as much as we can about how they arrived at the point of walking away from their infant, so that we can find way of educating parents to accept responsibility for their child - both parents.

Martha Ackmann is a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.