RALEIGH, N.C. — As the district attorney awaits a final autopsy report before deciding whether to file charges in the death of a newborn found buried in a backyard, people involved in an earlier case that led to North Carolina's safe surrender law say young mothers always have options.
"Each time, my heart just completely sinks," said child advocate Tom Vitaglione, who fought for North Carolina's safe surrender law in 2001. "I get upset that somehow, people will allow this to happen. And then I get upset that somehow there was something missing in our advocacy."
Last month, Franklin County authorities found a full-term baby girl weighing 8.5 pounds buried in the backyard of a home in subdivision near Louisburg. They had gone to the home after a person told police he overheard someone talking about a 16-year-old who was having a baby without telling anyone.
Sheriff Jerry Jones has said preliminary autopsy results showed someone may have cut the umbilical cord too closely and failed to stop the girl's bleeding. But the medical examiner may never be able to find the exact cause of death, Jones said.
While there's an assumption that resources were available to help the teenage mother in Franklin County, one woman who works with single parents and babies says that's not necessarily the case. Budgets for prevention, intervention and education programs have been cut, said Robin Testerman, executive director of The Children's Center of Surry and Yadkin counties.
"We don't know if they had resources at her school to provide her with intervention counseling," she said. "School counselors are overwhelmed, their time consumed with testing. It's hard for a kid to walk up to a counselor and say, 'I need help,' and it's hard for counselors to see a child in trouble."
North Carolina's safe surrender law allows a mother to give up her newborn, up to 7 days old, to a responsible adult and not face abandonment charges. The bill came about after a dead newborn was found in the Macon County landfill in February 2000, resulting in a second-degree murder conviction for the mother, who served seven years in prison.
Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland was a sergeant when he investigated that infant's death, which brought him to the Legislature to lobby for the safe surrender law. He said he doesn't know the details of the Franklin County case but that parents with unwanted pregnancies always have alternatives.
"People would line up for miles to give that baby a home and a fair chance," he said.
He takes comfort in knowing that 17 babies have been safely surrendered since 2007, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. That's the first year that counties separated safe surrender newborns from other children without adult caretakers in the social services system.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Sam Currin said he's in no hurry to decide whether to charge the mother in the Franklin County case.
"There's the life of this baby to consider but also the life of the mother and her family and the family of the reputed father," Currin said earlier this week. "I don't want to make a knee-jerk or rash decision."
Follow Martha Waggoner at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .