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Safe Surrender: Saving the Lives of Abandoned Newborns

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Jed and Kerry Silverstrom with their eight-year old adopted son Gus, in their home in Los Angeles, June 22, 2014.Ann Johansson / for NBC News

Six times so far this year, Kerry Silverstrom has tracked stories of abandoned babies like the one she adopted, newborns left at fire stations and hospitals in Los Angeles County by mothers too desperate or sick or broke to keep them.

Just since Memorial Day, three infant girls have been relinquished to the region’s Safe Surrender program, one of the largest in the nation to provide no-questions-asked adoption — and legal amnesty — to women who've run out of other options.

For Silverstrom, the news reports are a haunting reminder of the call she got in April 2006 asking whether she’d take the tiny, dark-haired boy whose mother gave birth in a hospital bathroom — and then left him behind.

“I was crazed and I was shaking,” Silverstrom recalls. “I had 20 minutes to decide. I called my husband and he said, ‘If this is what you want.’ I said ‘OK, we’re in.’ And the social worker said, ‘Congratulations, you have a son.’”

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Eight years later, Gus Nathan Silverstrom is a flourishing soon-to-be second-grader who loves to swim and draw comics. He was the 41st Safe Surrender baby in the LA county program that has now taken in 119 abandoned newborns since 2001 — and among some 2,613 babies nationwide rescued from fates that might otherwise have seen them left in dumpsters, gas station bathrooms — or worse.

But 15 years after the first so-called safe haven law was passed in the U.S, experts say that the need for the programs appears to be greater than ever. Despite decreased social stigma of unexpected pregnancy and greater adoption options, there’s no shortage of mothers who give birth — and then panic about what to do with the babies.

“It’s tragic, is what it is,” said Dawn Geras, president of the Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation in Chicago, who tracks babies abandoned in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. “My mornings start with Google searches of all these terrible stories.”

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Gus Silverstrom, 8, plays with baseball gear in the backyard of his home in Los Angeles, June 22, 2014. Ann Johansson / for NBC News

Just this week, Geras noted, a 17-year-old girl in DeWitt, New York, reported finding an abandoned newborn, but when police investigated, it became clear the child was hers. A 24-year-old Spring Valley, New York, woman pleaded guilty to manslaughter this week after she was charged with strangling her newborn son last November and dumping his body at a nearby recycling center.

“More often, I am just dismayed to talk to people and find out that they still don’t know the laws exist,” Geras said.

That’s partly because of the patchwork of state-by-state safe haven laws enacted across the country, beginning with the 1999 law championed by Tim Jaccard, a former police medic in Nassau County, New York, who now heads the AMT Children of Hope Baby Safe Foundation focused on abandoned babies.

"More often, I am just dismayed to talk to people and find out that they still don’t know the laws exist."

“It took me 10 years to get all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” said Jaccard. Alaska enacted a law in 2008; Washington, D.C.’s went into effect in 2009.

Jaccard and others were drawn to address the problem by heartbreaking discoveries of newborns who died or were murdered because their mothers didn’t want them. In one three-month period in 1998, he said he witnessed a baby girl found in a toilet bowl, another infant girl suffocated in a plastic bag and a boy buried in a shallow grave.

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Kerry Silverstrom holds Gus on their third day together. Courtesy Kerry Silverstrom

Some states and counties have raised the public profile for safe haven programs, with telling results. In California, where LA County Supervisor Don Knabe has made Safe Surrender a hallmark of his administration, some 560 babies have been saved statewide since 2001.

“Our motto is no shame, no blame, no name,” said Knabe. “I’ve never seen government work so efficiently.”

Still, there's no escaping the tragedies. Nationwide, 2,613 babies have been saved, but 1,281 have been abandoned illegally, including 628 who died, Geras' records show.

“Our motto is no shame, no blame, no name. I’ve never seen government work so efficiently.”

The programs vary widely, offering parents, usually mothers, between a few days to up to a year to abandon their infants without explanation, as long as there are no signs of abuse. (In 2008, Nebraska officials had to revise their law after they failed to limit it to babies and several parents showed up wanting to hand over their older children, including teenagers.) Some make hospitals, police stations and fire stations the only sites where babies can be abandoned legally. Others include clinics, doctors' offices, churches, social welfare offices and other sites.

"The big problem is that many, if not most of those are not staffed 24/7 and increases the dangerous possibility of a baby being left over night, maybe for a weekend, unattended," Geras noted. "And you can imagine the dreadful possible consequences to something like that."

There’s a false idea that those who use the program are poor, young uneducated and minority women, Geras said. In fact, very young teen moms accounted for only about 10 percent of the 95 babies left in the Illinois safe have program since 2001, her figures show. And 41 percent of the moms are white, compared with 25 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.

“It’s the upper-class young white girl, the college student who’s supposed to be the apple of her parents’ eye, who’s terrified to say she’s made a mistake,” Geras said.

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Gus at age seven months, at home with his adopted family.Courtesy Kerry Silverstrom

In the case of Gus Silverstrom, his birth mom already had three other children and couldn’t care for another. The 25-year-old student told hospital workers that she hid her pregnancy from the birth father and from her own mother, Kerry Silverstrom said. She went into labor unexpectedly several weeks early and delivered Gus in a hospital bathroom with the help of a nurse who happened to be passing by. From the start, she was clear about not wanting to keep the baby.

For Silverstrom and her husband, Jed, a professional couple who married late and couldn't have biological children, the woman’s decision changed their life. They had been certified as foster and adoptive parents, but say they had thought there was no chance they’d get a newborn. Suddenly, they were bringing home a 7-pound, 12-ounce baby.

“Everything about Gus was a miracle. He’s brought me back to faith,” Kerry Silverstrom said.

Raising Gus has brought the challenges that any parent can face, she said. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD and is behaviorally delayed, conditions that can have genetic links, Kerry Silverstrom said.

“Everything about Gus was a miracle. He’s brought me back to faith.”

But when people try to tell her that she and her husband are heroes for taking in an abandoned baby, she stops them.

“I hate that,” Silverstrom said. “I feel like that’s an honor we don’t deserve. We wanted a family. Gus is in a better situation than he would have been in. But am I hero for doing that? No, that’s what any parent would have done.”

Reports of six babies abandoned in her county so far this year alarm and sadden Silverstrom, who says she feels deep sympathy for women forced into such positions.

“We want birth mothers to know there is an option,” she said. “There are people out there who desperately want your children.”