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After 25 years, California officer meets rescued abandoned baby: How often are babies abandoned? (+video)

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KABC-TV via AP

(Read caption) In this April 24, 2015 still from video provided by KABC-TV, retired Santa Ana, Calif., police officer Michael Buelna (r.) embraces Robin Barton, now 25.

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Robin Barton was abandoned as a newborn in 1989. Recently, he reunited with the California police officer who found him and saved his life, and was able to thank the officer for the first time.

While this story pulls at heartstrings and highlights the gratitude of a man who otherwise may not be alive, it also highlights a problem in the US that receives little attention and is still a topic of controversy. How do we, as a society, handle discarded and abandoned infants?

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A little over 25 years ago, Santa Ana police officer Michael Buelna heard a noise coming from a garbage can. He investigated, and discovered a four-hour-old baby boy.

“He still had all the mucus and stuff, and all the trash and gravel was sticking to him,” Mr. Buelna said. He wished to adopt the boy, but another family initiated adoption first. They named him Robin Barton, and raised the 4-pound, 2-oz. baby to adulthood. Mr. Barton now says he was “blessed with a great family.”

There is surprisingly little data surrounding the rate of abandoned and discarded babies like Barton. The rates of abandoned infants, those left in the care of another entity (hospitals, police stations, etc.) and discarded infants, those left in unsafe environments (streets, dumpsters, etc.), are not tracked by the government, therefore there are no federal statistics to show the prevalence of either act.

The Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, an Illinois-based nonprofit, tracks occurrences to the best of their ability. They found that between 1997 and 1999, about 33 babies were found in Illinois each year. Dawn Geras, president of SABF, said that she estimates the number of babies saved to be around 3,000 since 1999 with the passing of Safe Haven laws, which legally enable parents to “give up” their babies, no questions asked. However, she also estimates the number of discarded infants to be close to 1,400, about two thirds of which are not alive when found.

In efforts to address baby abandonment, some countries across Europe install “baby boxes,” which enable parents to leave their infants in a location that will ensure the baby will be safe. Indiana is one of the first US states to propose the installation of such boxes.

Critics have argued that while well-intentioned, these boxes miss the mark: many babies are abandoned due to the lack of support or resources on the parent’s end, so wouldn’t it make more sense to provide parental support rather than encourage troubled parents to abandon their children?

“Baby boxes do not operate in the best interest of the child or the mother,” said Maria Herczog, a sociologist and member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Monitor reported previously. The UNCRC calls for the boxes to be banned. “They encourage women to give birth in unsafe and life-threatening conditions.”

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But advocates argue that while the boxes may not be ideal, it gives women the option to relinquish rights to their children without resorting to more desperate actions. Cristina Tango from the International Reference Center for the Rights of Children Deprived of their Family told the Monitor in 2012 that the boxes are not a first defense; they are to provide options to women who may feel they have no other option.

“The issue is very delicate and controversial; different economic and social grounds may lead mothers to abandon their baby,” she said. “These women are, in general, victims of a lack of adequate social networks and state public services. In the absence of such services, these boxes are a plausible solution to ensure the child's survival and guarantee women's rights.”

In the case of Barton, his mother was a 19-year-old woman, and he was the product of an affair. The mother, Sarina Diaz, ultimately served three years in prison for child endangerment and attempted murder. The birth father was unaware that she was pregnant until he was questioned by the police for her trial. After the story of Barton reuniting with the officer who rescued him spread, his birth father contacted him and they too were reunited. Barton also expressed a desire to meet his birth mother.

“I'm not angry or upset with her, and I forgive her because she was a young woman in a very compromising position,” Barton said.

This article contains reporting from the Associated Press.