The young woman carried her infant into the emergency room on a chilly February night in 2002. Wrapped in a blue blanket with pastel letters spelling “Sweet Dreams,” the 2-day-old baby appeared to be healthy.
The mother stayed at the Santa Ana hospital only a short time, leaving with tears in her eyes – and without her child. She never saw him again.
On that night, the plump boy wearing a newborn outfit decorated with little elephants, a knit cap and mittens became the first child in Orange County to be given up under California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law.
The law protected the young woman from prosecution for abandonment and ensured anonymity so that no one would ever know who she was. The baby, too, was swathed in protective confidentiality.
As the law enters its 15th year, that one-time “Baby John Doe” is giving up a measure of his own privacy to tell people how well it has served him.
Lanky and athletic at 14, Nicholas Christian Dyer is a thoughtful adolescent who enjoys soccer and photography, does well in school, and is deeply loved by his mom, dad, younger brother and extended family. The family lives in Corona.
Nicholas was only the third baby in California surrendered under what was then a year-old statute set to expire in 2005. His happy fate would play a role in convincing state legislators of the need to make the law permanent.
Nicholas and his family hope to further encourage parents as desperate as his birth mother was to do the right thing when they give up their children.
“I hope one day that they’ll be brought to a loving family,” Nicholas says, “and they can live happy lives.”
State records credit the law with delivering 770 infants through the end of last year to hospitals, police departments, fire stations and other designated places in California where a parent can give up a child without the threat of prosecution.
Just last month, a baby was placed in the burly arms of firefighters in Orange, the 70th child safely surrendered in Orange County.
Sadly, there are babies whose parents simply discard them, like the 4-day-old girl found in December along a bike path in Compton. She is among 169 newborns the California Department of Social Services documents as having been abandoned since enactment of the Safely Surrendered Baby Law.
Of those babies, 100 did not survive.
It’s only natural that Nicholas wonders who his birth mother was and why she gave him up. But he is thankful that she could do it the way she did.
“She could have just left me somewhere where nobody would have found me,” he says as he sits beside the people who became his parents, Elisa and Kenneth Dyer, in the living room of his grandparents’ home in Orange.
“She wanted what was best for me.”
‘MOSES IN A BASKET’
The Dyers are convinced that Nicholas’ birth mother loved her child.
The woman, who appeared to be in her early 20s and possibly Hispanic, would say only that she couldn’t care for him and reported that the father was unknown.
The child, who favored her dark hair, eyes and skin, was clean and healthy when the woman took him to what was then Western Medical Center in Santa Ana.
And there was this observation by hospital staff that county social workers noted in their report: Tears fell from her eyes as she left her baby behind.
“I can’t imagine that she’s not thinking about him,” Elisa Dyer says. “I told him, you don’t know if she was homeless, if she was in an abusive relationship, whether she had five kids already and couldn’t take care of one more.”
Orange County has had its share of babies left in restrooms, under bushes and in trash cans. One such child found next to an Anaheim supermarket Dumpster in the late 1980s was dubbed Baby Alpha Beta by police officers. Her story made headlines twice: when she was discovered and again last year as she reconciled with the birth mother she had tracked down using DNA services.
The first year under the law, 20 babies were abandoned in California and only two safely surrendered, state records show. The year Nicholas was born, the number of surrendered babies jumped to 17 but was still outnumbered by the 25 abandoned.
Barely six months before Nicholas’ birth, Erin Hartigan, the Orange County social worker who handled his adoption for the Dyers, oversaw the adoption of a baby girl who had been abandoned in some bushes.
That little girl is thriving with her adoptive family, but “I don’t know what they’re going to tell her about her past and the decision her (birth) mom made,” says Hartigan, who has been involved in the adoptions of about a dozen other surrendered babies.
“How sad that is to be discarded like that.”
Unable to conceive, the Dyers desperately wanted a child.
Nicholas came along right after a failed adoption broke their hearts: A little girl they took in as foster parents ended up reunified with her mother.
The Dyers, who lived in Orange at the time, have since reconnected with the girl and her birth family. But Elisa Dyer recalls how wary they were about trying a second county adoption.
“It had to be Moses in a basket to do it again,” she recalls. “And it was.”
After a medical screening determined that the nearly 9-pound Baby John Doe did not require hospitalization, he was taken by social workers to an older couple whose home served as an emergency shelter.
The law establishes a 14-day window from the time of the surrender for the baby to be reclaimed. (That’s happened six times in Orange County.)
Dyer had Baby John Doe in her arms a little over two weeks after he was surrendered. She began calling him Nicholas.
It took a year to finalize the adoption.
When California’s law was enacted in 2001, the idea of safely surrendering a baby was so new. Dozens of other states were considering similar legislation, but only Texas, with its Baby Moses Project, had such a law on the books at the time.
Nobody really knew whether the crucial twin promise of anonymity and immunity from the threat of prosecution would keep babies from being abandoned in unsafe locations.
Arguing in the legislation’s favor, co-author Ken Maddox, then an assemblyman from Garden Grove, called safe surrender “a life-saving option for the infant.”
But there was opposition that included fathers’ rights supporters, advocates for adoptees and others who believed it encouraged parents to shirk responsibility and legitimized abandonment.
Even Debbe Magnusen, whose Costa Mesa-based Project Cuddle has worked to prevent child abandonment since the mid-1990s, initially found fault with the law and worked to change what she saw as loopholes.
By 2005, when lawmakers took up the question of refining the law and making it permanent, Magnusen had traveled to Sacramento to speak on behalf of its extension. She brought two special guests: Elisa Dyer and her toddler, Nicholas.
Magnusen became involved with the family after Dyer’s mother, Jan Chomyn, bought a hot dog at a Project Cuddle booth during a fundraiser and mentioned that her grandson was Orange County’s first safely surrendered child.
Magnusen says that when representatives of the adoptees rights organization Bastard Nation argued at a hearing in the state Capitol that there was no real proof the Safely Surrendered Baby Law was working, she pointed to little Nicholas, dressed in a suit and tie and sitting to her left on Dyer’s lap.
“I put my hand out and said, ‘Ta-da! The proof is right there.’”
Along with adopting Nicholas, the Dyers also went through the process of having a child through the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption program. Their second son, Daniel, 12, had been implanted in Dyer’s womb.
In their looks, the Dyers’ two boys are like night and day: The fair-skinned and blue-eyed Daniel more resembles his parents.
There is this big difference too: The Dyers have a lot of information on the medical history and ethnic heritage of Daniel’s birth family. For Nicholas, they have none.
But they keep the car seat he arrived in at Western Medical Center, now called Orange County Global Medical Center, in the attic of their house. The “Sweet Dreams” baby blanket is folded on a closet shelf in Nicholas’ bedroom.
He never takes the blanket down but sometimes stares at it and wonders: Why was I given up?
He’s not sure he’s ready for the answer.
“It’s still a lot for me.”
Contact the writer: 714-796-7793 or firstname.lastname@example.org