Photos by Keeley Smith.
Pastor Ben Castillo of the Seventh Street Church of Long Beach held his candle solemnly while making preparations for Wednesday night’s vigil, honoring the life of the baby whose body was found in North Long Beach on February 24.
He comforted community members and Hamilton Neighborhood Association leader Hilda Gaytan, as people and cameras milled around the memorial, constructed of candles, cards and stuffed animals, where the baby was found.
“We hope this brings awareness to the community,” said Castillo. “We all make mistakes. There is a whole community to back someone up.”
One week after the decomposing remains of a dead baby were found in North Long Beach, neighbors and community leaders gathered at the site of the body’s discovery to grieve and evaluate how such circumstances can be prevented in the future.
Leaders moved between expressing anger at the fact that a baby was left to perish, and concern that an individual in the community felt alone when resources aimed at helping young mothers are available.
Andrew Veis, spokesperson for Supervisor Knabe's Office, speaks. Castillo translates to the crowd, on the left.
“Things like this really hit us in the gut,” said Long Beach Police Department (LBFD) Fire Chief Mike Duree. “Things like this don’t have to happen. There is a fire station two blocks from here.”
“It’s hard to believe that this happened in our own backyard,” said Ninth District Councilmember Rex Richardson, amid candlelight, to the crowd gathered at Wednesday’s vigil at 67th Street and Gardenia Avenue. “This was a wake up call that we have to do more, so that no one feels alone in our community.”
Andrew Veis, a spokesperson from Supervisor Don Knabe’s office, reiterated the importance of the supervisor’s Safe Surrender program in an interview with the Post and during the vigil. The program was instituted in 2001 and has saved 142 lives since its inception. Under the program, mothers can surrender infants no more than three days old to any fire or police station, or hospital, as long as there are no signs of abuse.
According to Veis, mothers can choose to undergo a medical evaluation along with their child. The program emphasizes confidentiality and providing a safe environment for the mothers, who, if they attempt to abandon their child in any other environment (without seeking the proper adoption process), qualify for arrest based on child neglect, endangerment and possibly murder, depending on the case.
However, despite the benefits of the program, community members and organizations outside of California questioned its efficacy and suggested the program itself had room for improvement, as well as other efforts aimed at targeting populations outside the voting base of older male politicians.
“We are lucky the government is making more of an effort to reach out to neighborhoods,” said Castillo. “The government is doing what it is supposed to do at an administrative level, but at the grassroots level—on foot—it’s not happening.”
Castillo suggested improvements for local communications campaigns, specifically ones pertaining to valuable resources most likely to be used by low-income, minority women, stating they should use mobile applications in the language of the target audience, in addition to researching other effective tactics.
Veis said the Safe Surrender program switched up its campaign tactics around two years ago to include new bumper stickers on buses, a new website with a webinar, posters and flyers in four different languages, aiming to engage the audience most in need of Safe Surrender. In an interview last week, Supervisor Knabe said other strategies involved posting public service advertisements during nighttime hours. Veis said there are currently no plans to change the program.
Baby Safe Haven New England, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, argued that more effective communications strategies could and should be adopted, referencing a similar law passed in Massachusetts that also allows women seven days instead of three to drop their child off.
In his interview last week, Knabe said the 72 hour (three day) rule was instituted on the advice of physicians, who maintain that the first three days are essential to the well-being of a baby and “define their life.”
“Too much can happen in a week,” said Knabe. “Going on what the doctors told us, too much can happen to an infant. As far as I understand, this tragedy thought the baby was burnt to death when the reality was it was in a decomposition mode, which made it look like it was burned, and obviously something like that can happen in seven days, eight days.”
Knabe said “people have tried 30 days, have tried 60 days,” and have had to be turned away from Safe Surrender areas. “The first 72 hours is the most critical time in an infant’s life,” he said. “Anything being thought, particularly if someone has responded, there could be more abuse to the baby.”
Staff at Baby Safe Haven focused on the program's communications strategies and offered suggestions on better targeting tactics.
Rex Richardson addresses the crowd.
“The problem is the old politicians of your state are using it to self promote to their likely voters, who are in their 40s, 50, and 60s,” wrote Mike and Jean Morrisey of Baby Safe Haven in an email to the Post. “They're definitely not getting the info out to teens and twenty year olds. If that were the case you'd never see much too old political types in California, you'd see young music stars of LA, young TV and movie stars of Hollywood and nothing else.”
In a January interview with State House News Service, Baby Safe Haven founders claimed that just one baby has been found dead in the last five years within the state. Massachusetts began its program in 2004.
Veis said it is difficult to track the performance of the program in full (particularly the exact number of babies lost because mothers did not take advantage of the program), due to the confidential aspect of Safe Surrender, something Veis said they strive to make stress-free for the mothers, and the size of Los Angeles County.
“This is the largest county in America, with diverse demographics,” said Veis. “It’s so hard to measure. Most people think that those giving up their babies in the centers are 16 or 15-year-olds. [...] These are not just young teens who are abandoning or surrendering their babies. We’ve had someone as old as 46 years old hand over their baby. These are mothers who get pregnant in secret, hide their secret, and then want to get rid of their secret."
Veis said Safe Surrender offers such mothers a safe an anonymous avenue to do so, "while giving their child the chance to live a full life with a family who loves them."
That being said, Veis, Richardson, Duree and community members continued to evaluate the cause of the situation and theorize what could have caused the decomposing infant to be abandoned and found in that North Long Beach alley.
“No program, no amount of money can do what we, the community can do,” said Gaytan, of the neighborhood association. “Opening our homes to these women, being compassionate is what is going to make a difference.”
This story was updated at 5:48PM with additional information from Andrew Veis, spokesperson for Supervisor Knabe's office.