Just two miles from the Chandler construction site where the body of a newborn girl was pulled from a portable toilet, 15-month-old Victoria Romo lives in a comfortable home with a loving family.
Victoria, just three hours old when her mother abandoned her at a Phoenix hospital, is a smiling, babbling reminder of what the state’s safe haven law is intended to accomplish.
The baby found May 21 at the construction site is a stark reminder of the law’s failures.
With no funding to publicize the law and no coordinated effort to reach out to young women at risk of abandoning their newborns, the 10 babies who have been deposited at hospitals and fire stations since the law was passed in 2001 are just plain lucky.
Victoria Romo is one of the lucky ones. The baby came to Christine and Victor Romo when she was five weeks old, drug-exposed and tiny. The Chandler couple already had two adopted sons, foster children they had raised since infancy.
"She’s a beautiful little girl. A smart little girl," Christine Romo said. "All three of them are from CPS. They’re perfectly healthy and fine."
Children adopted through the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees Child Protective Services, have been abandoned, or removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. The state requires training, a home study and financial stability for adoption, and provides a monthly subsidy until the child turns 18.
As of April, there were 61 children legally free for adoption in Maricopa County with no prospects for a permanent home.
Foster and adoptive parents can be young or old, single or married. They don’t have to be stay-home mothers, and they don’t have to have lots of money.
"I had a woman call last week and ask if there’s preferential treatment for twoparent families. Absolutely not," said Marcia Reck, director of Arizona Action for Foster Children in Tempe, which trains foster and adoptive parents. "What we’re looking for is a family who can best meet the child’s needs."
Reck’s agency has placed two of the babies abandoned under the safe haven law, including Victoria. It has trained adoptive parents in their 20s and in their 60s.
Other than some media coverage and stickers on Gilbert trash bins, the safe haven law has been invisible. That frustrates advocates and volunteers trying to drum up publicity.
"Nobody knows about it," said Mary Jacobson, volunteer coordinator of Project Hope Floats at the First United Methodist Church of Mesa.
The church has a telephone next to a sign near the office that connects to a cell phone. On the other end, a volunteer with a baby seat and diaper bag is ready to meet mother and baby at the church at any time, no questions asked. Every Sunday, parishioners hand off the cell phone and baby items to the next volunteer. So far, the only calls have come from homeless people looking for food or bus fare, Jacobson said.
By this fall, Jacobson hopes to be distributing bumper stickers saying, "Don’t abandon your baby," with a telephone number to call for help.
"They’re scared to death," she said of young women who abandon their infants. "If they were in a good situation, they would not be trying to do this."
Christine Romo called her boys to the TV last month when she heard about the newborn in the portable toilet. She had told the boys as preschoolers that they were adopted, and they also were told that their baby sister had been abandoned at birth.
"They know where she could’ve been," Romo said. "And I think they’re even more thankful for that."
The Romos took Victoria without hesitation, knowing that as an abandoned baby she came with no medical history. The law requires women to hand their baby to someone at a hospital, fire station or designated church, but they don’t have to give any information.
Victoria hasn’t started walking yet, scooching around the floor on her bottom instead. She’s just started physical therapy to get caught up. Otherwise, she is a typical baby who loves Elmo, pizza and her big brothers. Her adoption became final June 2.
The Romos know their children’s past has little to do with their future.
"The way you raise them has everything to do with it," Christine Romo said.