Garden of Innocents saves babies from the trash

El Camino in Sorrento Valley offered to donate 105 places

— Ten years ago, Elissa Davey received her vocation. She was a 50-year-old realtor, mother of two sons, and resident of San Marcos when the call came in the form of a story in the newspaper about a newborn baby found dead and abandoned in Chula Vista. “Usually,” she says today, “you read stories like that and say, ‘Oh my God, who could do something like that? How cruel. How ignorant. How sad.’ Then your day starts, and you are off on your own and you forget.”

But Davey couldn’t forget that baby. “I don’t know why that particular baby was different, but it haunted me to the point where, after a month, I called the County Medical Examiner’s Office and I asked them what became of that baby. And he said he was still there. And if nobody claimed him, he would go into an unmarked grave at Mount Hope Cemetery. I asked, ‘How do you claim a baby that is not yours?’ He said, ‘Show me you have a dignified place to put him.’ So I went to work to make a dignified place to put him. But I didn’t get that baby, because it took me almost a year to get it all set up.”

What she set up was a nonprofit organization called Garden of Innocence, dedicated to burying unidentified dead babies such as the Chula Vista baby she had read about and babies abandoned at local hospitals. El Camino Memorial park in Sorrento Valley “offered to donate 105 places for me. I just had to pay a one-time fee of $16,000 for the opening and the closing of the graves.”

Davey had put together a board of directors for the nonprofit. She gathered them all and showed them the offer from El Camino. “I put the note on the table, and everyone that was there said, ‘I am not signing that note.’ Nobody would sign it with me. So I figured, ‘I will sign, I don’t care.’ So I signed it, and I owed $16,000 to El Camino.”

She borrowed $16,000 against the equity in her house to pay the cemetery and paid it off over the next two and a half years with fund-raising efforts. “I started doing public speaking, I started putting out the word and getting people involved. We did a fund-raiser, and then New Venture Church in North County donated $10,000, and another donor gave us $15,000. So I was able to pay that off. Then, over the next couple of years, I decided to buy the land around the garden. It came to $30,000, but it was enough gravesites for 600 children. So I decided to do more public speaking and try to meet 30,000 people and ask them for a dollar each. I didn’t have to meet 30,000 people, but I had to meet a lot of them. I spoke at church groups and civic groups, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis. I spoke at youth groups — some of the youth groups raised money by having car washes. We only put on one big fund-raiser. I was able to pay [the $30,000] in a year and a half. So now the garden is totally paid off, except every time we bury a baby, we have to pay a fee of $125.”

In the spring of 1999, a baby boy whom Garden of Innocence members would later name Adam “was found wrapped up in his mother’s sweatpants and thrown in the trash,” Davey recalls.

The county medical examiner turned over Adam’s body to Davey. On May 21, 1999, Adam became the first baby buried at the Garden of Innocence. And he was almost the last. “The medical examiner told us that part of the rules were, if [a baby] is unidentified and considered certified abandoned, that we weren’t supposed to tell anybody any of his circumstances. So [representatives of the medical examiner] showed up at the service to kind of critique us and watch how we did the first service. But in the newspaper the next day was a whole story about [Adam], how he was found, where he came from, the details of where he was thrown away. And the County immediately canceled us and said, ‘We gave you specific orders not to divulge that information.’ I said, ‘We didn’t say a word, we never mentioned anything, we didn’t tell a soul.’ Come to find out that the person that wrote the story had spoken directly to someone in the Medical Examiner’s Office who told her everything. So once they found out that we didn’t do it, that it was one of their own personnel, we got the go-ahead to continue.”

The other snag with Adam’s burial involved the minister who volunteered to speak at the service. “Somebody asked me, ‘What should we tell the minister to say?’ ” Davey recalls. “I said, ‘We shouldn’t have to tell him anything. Ministers know what to do at a gravesite service.’ ”

But the minister at that first service made Davey regret the decision not to give talk guidelines. “[He] used the word ‘abortion,’ he used the word ‘kill,’ he used the phrase ‘thrown in the trash.’ He said, ‘What an awful mother.’ He brought up all this horrible stuff. And we were thinking, ‘Don’t mention any of those words, because what happened yesterday doesn’t pertain to today. Today is a new day.’ ”

At all of the services since Adam’s, Davey and other members of the nonprofit have given guidelines to the ministers who volunteer to speak. “The only thing that we say is, ‘Don’t mention what an awful mom. Don’t mention how cruel this was. Don’t mention anything that happened yesterday. Focus on today. Today this baby is going home with a lot of people that care, a lot of people that love him.’ ”

Catholic priests, protestant ministers, rabbis, and shamans from around San Diego and as far away as Chicago have spoken at Garden of Innocence services. “We’ve had [representatives from] 32 different churches come, and they all volunteer. And we have more lined up who want to come for future services.”

Though the clergy have varied, one constant has been the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. “They’ve come out for every service,” Davey says. “The first service, there were about 7. And the last service that we just did, there were about 30. But we have had as many as 70 there at one time. They give a lot of dignity to our services. They just give it an amazing amount of love. We just buried our 98th baby two weeks ago, and we are preparing for when we get our 100th because it is going to be a huge service, and the Knights of Columbus are going to be putting on the whole thing themselves. So it will be mostly a Catholic service, though we will have other people there. We will have a whole church choir there, from Good Shepherd [Catholic Parish in Mira Mesa].”

The Knights’ involvement in Garden of Innocence was accidental — or providential. “One of the members of our group, Tony Miller,” Davey recalls, “one of his relatives had passed away and left him with a sword. And so he went to a Catholic church to find out if he could donate it to the Knights of Columbus. He started talking to them about the Garden of Innocence, and they said, ‘We would like to be involved in that.’ We have had Knights from as far away as Connecticut come and do a service. They are an amazing bunch of men.”

Most of the 98 babies buried at the Garden of Innocence were not newborns found in the trash, like Adam. “Those are called unidentified,” Davey explains, “the ones that are found along the street or thrown in the trash or thrown in the sewer. We have had 10 or 12 of them. The rest are abandoned. Abandoned babies are those that died at area hospitals and the parents walked away and left the bodies. Some are stillborn, some of them are preemies that were born too soon and died right away. Some of them lived for a while before they were abandoned. Doris lived for a month. She was Life Flighted to San Diego from Orange County for immediate open-heart surgery at Children’s Hospital, where she lived for a month. During that month, not one mother came to see her, not one grandmother, nobody. And then after a month, she died, and she ended up being certified abandoned. But during that month, the nurses at the hospital bond with these children so fast. So we explain to the hospital that we are going to take care of them. And we have had some nurses come to our services.”

Davey reports that nurses who come to services of babies they cared for say they receive a sense of closure. Others have as well. “When Michaela was found in the mountains, I called the woman that found her, the jogger that found her, and told her that we were going to be taking care of her. She came, and it gave her great closure, because she never knew what would have happened to her. And the man that found Michael in the sewer, I called him to tell him that we were going to be taking care of him, and he came. And he said it was wonderful to see the dignity that this baby he had found in the sewer got.”

Though she doesn’t know for sure, Davey is almost certain that mothers of babies abandoned at hospitals have come to the Garden of Innocence to see their babies buried. “We believe that we have had maybe one or two mothers come that knew about it, but they never let us know. We think they were the mothers because they were crying uncontrollably. But they didn’t speak to anybody.”

Parents who have abandoned their children at hospitals are not prosecuted. “It’s not against the law to walk away,” Davey says.

Before Garden of Innocence, dead babies abandoned at hospitals were cremated and their ashes scattered at sea along with those of indigents found dead around the county.

Now that the Garden of Innocence is up and running in San Diego, Davey is trying to start gardens in other states. Efforts are under way in Texas, Washington, Missouri, and Nevada. This isn’t Davey’s job. She’s still a realtor. She says it’s her calling. “Sometimes people will ask, ‘How can you bury a baby? That is the worst thing to do in the whole wide world.’ And my answer right back is, ‘How can we not?’ ”

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