August 3, 1997 in City

Rules, Realities Weave A Tangled Web

Diana Griego Erwin Mcclatchy Ne

Next week, a year will have passed since a young woman named Shelby Miles stopped at the Sav Max, delivered a premature baby in the restroom and abandoned her in a trash can.

Then 21, Miles was ordered to serve 240 hours of community service in a hospital pediatrics unit followed by 90 days in jail. Then she got her baby back.

Meanwhile, a San Bernardino judge cleared the way recently for a teen mother to regain custody of the newborn she left in the garage under the family car.

The original charges against Gina Gonzalez, 19, were attempted murder, but the judge now says mother and baby are “just about to be” reunited.

Stories of newborns abandoned in trash cans, school restrooms and alleys shock our sensibilities and overrule what we think we know of motherhood.

So what does one surmise about a woman who does just the opposite, taking in a newborn whose mother doesn’t want her? What do we do to a woman who surrounds this abandoned child with toys and love, caring for her as if she were her own?

In Sacramento, we arrest and prosecute her.

She may not be perfect, but put yourself in Leah Codell Bracken’s shoes.

One day, strangers stop by your house and ask you to look after the newborn infant of a friend who’s in jail. A few days later, the mother stops by, holds her child and notices how pretty and powdery clean she is since coming into your home.

Because her life’s messed up, she leaves the baby with you, although you assume she’ll be back. But she doesn’t return and before you know it you’re dressing the baby in frilly dresses, cooing in her ear and singing her midnight lullabys. When the baby sees you coming, she beams.

You call child welfare officials a couple of times, just to see what they’d do with a scenario such as yours. They tell you they’d do everything they could to reunite the child with the birth mother, that’s their policy. You look at the sweet child in your arms; you know the mother’s a prostitute. You hang up the phone.

Four years later, officials with shiny badges and others with legal papers tucked under their arms, show up at your door. This is the same system that rescues children only to return them to drug-abusing parents. This is the same bureaucracy that sends children through the revolving door of foster care and later says funds were tight, they did their best.

But you are the criminal. You go to jail.

This is what happened last July 24 to Bracken, 41, a Sacramento-area woman who admits she raised a prostitute’s child for the past four years.

Bracken was jailed and the child was whisked away from the only mother she’d ever known two days before her fourth birthday. Bracken has vowed to fight for the child, but Sacramento Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Jim Cooper predicts she’ll never get custody.

Who are the good guys here? Who are the bad? Who can explain to that child who cares for her and who screwed up?

The case is a talker because there are so many questions and so few real answers. This could happen in a Toni Morrison or Barbara Kingsolver novel and we’d be cheering for the not-so-perfect woman who redeemed the mistakes of her life by doing her best by an abandoned child.

In real life, the twists and turns investigators must pursue leave little room for empathy:

Was there a father or other blood relative who would have loved to raise the child, given the chance? Did Ms. Bracken, who’s been convicted of welfare fraud before, use the child for monetary gain or was she acting as a sort of de facto parent to an unwanted child, which happens in communities more than we know?

Have officials destroyed this child’s life by ripping her away from the woman she considers her mother or is this emotional trauma Ms. Bracken’s fault, as sheriff’s officials contend.

“If she had done the right thing four years ago, we wouldn’t be here,” Cooper said. “She’s the one. She’s the difference between right and wrong.”

Of course, the next question is where would the child be had Bracken turned her over to authorities four years ago, and the answer is that we don’t know.

But the policy back then would have been to reunite her with her mother, and it’s questionable whether that truly would have been more desirable.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service

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