COAST CITIES — More than 75 people formed a circle around three tiny caskets on the morning of Feb. 5 to participate in the burial of three newborn babies who were each abandoned after their birth: Stephanie, Inez and Jonathan.
Passersby might have assumed that the funeral at El Camino Memorial Park was a gathering of family and friends who were paying respects to a lost loved one, yet no one in attendance had ever met any of the babies who were laid to rest.
The funeral was open to the public and drew strangers, community members and volunteers to the service provided by the Garden of Innocence, or GOI, a nonprofit organization that has operated since 1998 in providing dignified burials for abandoned or unidentified babies in San Diego County.
Several people, including two young Cub Scouts, took turns reading lists of the names of babies in the “garden” who preceded Stephanie, Inez and Jonathan in the same fate of death.
“Brianne. Carmen. Madison. Noah. Francesco. Isaiah. Jeanette,” said Keegan Johnson, 8, as he faced the crowd.
“Andrew. Hope. Chad. Pearl. Alexander. Colin. Nick,” said Ben Gibbons, 7.
In 2010, there were nine burials in the Garden of Innocence.
“Nick” was the last name read from the lists, and the first child of 2011 to be buried. The trio of babies at the recent burial brought the number to four deaths in the county so far this year from newborn abandonment or unidentified deaths.
The number of babies laid to rest in their own special garden section of the cemetery is now 121.
But how or where they were found is not something that the founder and president of GOI is fond of disclosing.
“That’s yesterday,” Elissa Davey said. “Today’s a new day.”
New beginnings is also what the Safely Surrendered Baby Law is all about, as it aims to provide a safe and confidential alternative to mothers who might be planning on abandoning their baby.
The lives of nine babies in the county have been spared since Jan. 1, 2001, when the Safely Surrendered Baby Law was implemented, according to Margo Fudge, an assistant director at the San Diego County Child Welfare Services.
Statewide, 64 babies were safely surrendered in California in 2010, she said.
The law allows for a parent or person who has custody of a newborn to legally, confidentially and safely surrender the infant to a hospital or fire station within 72 hours of the baby’s birth.
Last November, Oceanside Fire Station No. 5 was used by one mother to safely surrender her newborn infant who was still covered with blood, according to a previous report from The Coast News.
The county’s total number of nine safely surrendered babies in the past decade includes four who were brought to a fire station, according to Fudge.
But fire stations didn’t become designated sites until December 2007 when the San Diego County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution authorizing the full-time staffed fire stations as “Safe Haven Sites.”
Battalion Chief Rick Vogt, of the San Marcos Fire Department, helped bring the safe surrender sites to fire stations countywide.
He spearheaded the project, which took about a year to implement, and had complete support from the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, he said.
Vogt said other counties in the state had fire stations as designated safe surrender locations, and he thought it was a great, low-cost solution as an additional option for desperate mothers.
“It’s a situation that some women find themselves in and no one likes to think about it,” he said.
He said he saw the fire station sites as a need because some women might not be comfortable surrendering their baby at a hospital.
“A fire station is an option if someone finds they are in a situation, not knowing what to do,” he said.
Every firefighter that works at a designated Safe Surrender site has had video training of what to do if an infant arrives.
They also have access to required paperwork and kits that contain identification bands, he said.
Matching identification bracelets are placed on both the mother and newborn’s arm at the time of surrender, as part of the state’s law that allows a mother to change her mind within 14 days of surrendering the baby.
Laura Johnson regularly attends the funeral services held at the garden and said she wanted to get her son’s Cub Scout den involved.
“I think everyone should come to one of these services,” she said.
She and her adopted son, Keegan, have been coming to the services for many years after it was learned that Keegan had a twin sister who was buried in the garden.
Soft music strummed from a guitar during the funeral, a minister spoke and special poems were read for each of the babies.
The three small wooden caskets were passed around the circle, from hand to hand, and retired Minster Allan Musterer later said the act of passing the caskets was spiritual and like that of a pall bearer.
“The purpose is, when you hold that casket you have a spiritual connection with the soul of the child,” he said.
Several members from the Catholic 4th degree Knights of Columbus also participated in the service, and have been a part of every burial at the cemetery as they stand attention in their uniforms with their gloves, capes and swords.
Doves are also part of each service and are released from a basket back into the sky.
Garden of Innocence services are nondenominational and the volunteer officiates come from many denominations, Davey said.
The website for GOI gives detailed information on services, which are made possible by volunteers who make sure that each baby is given a handmade casket, a handmade blanket, a receiving blanket, a small new stuffed animal, a poem and their own name.
“The names come from all over the United States,” Davey said.
She said that most of the names have come from people who have donated money to GOI and might need a closure of their own.
Letting them name the child is a way for the garden to say thank you for their donation, she said in a previous report.
The organization has grown from its start in San Diego to include gardens in at least five other states, and internationally has expanded to include the start-up of the program in Quebec, Canada.
Davey started the organization after she learned that bodies of unclaimed children in the county were cremated or buried in unmarked graves.
But for nearly 13 years now, Davey and her co-founder Rebecca Melendez have made their final resting place be complete with a loving service held at El Camino Memorial Park.
Now, when the body of a baby is discovered, the ladies quickly get to work.
The medical examiner contacts Davey when a baby turns up.
“Once I get the call, the first thing I do is call Rebecca,” Davey said.
She said necessary paperwork must be filled out and everything takes place within a two-week period before the funeral, which is coordinated by help from volunteers.
Rick Rojas was one of the many volunteers present at the funeral along with his wife, and said he has been volunteering with the GOI for three-and-a-half years.
He began working as a poem coordinator and now helps arrange for the officiate and for people to give the opening and closing prayers.
He said he became involved in volunteering after a co-worker introduced him to GOI by visiting the website.
Jerry Moore Sr., minister at City of Hope International, was the officiate at the service held Jan. 15, 2011, for newborn Nick.
He was also present on Feb. 6, to help pay respects to the three most recent burials.
“I believe in the celebration of life. People see this as a morbid thing,” he said. “But it’s a celebration to these children. These are babies that drew in all of these people.”
Julie Zimmerman had attended the service and was one of the last few people to leave.
She said that it was the 25th baby she had come to a funeral for.
“Everybody deserves the dignity of being remembered,” she said.