SALT LAKE CITY — The narratives surrounding child abandonment cases are as different as the people involved, front-line child welfare workers say.
But data collected by the state Division of Child and Family Services point to some common factors in these cases — poor parenting skills, a lack of housing, substance abuse and a lack of financial resources.
"The main issues are intertwined with most of the time," said Elaine Totten, a veteran DCFS supervisor, who also works as an on-call caseworker.
When people don't have money, they tend to move from one place to another, Totten said. "They don't get settled in and they don't create any community attachments. When they do need assistance, they don't know where to go," she said.
Even people who live with family members can feel isolated if they do not feel nurtured and supported, says Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center, which operates three crisis nurseries in the Salt Lake County where overwhelmed parents can safely leave their children.
"Quite often the parents (who abandon children) feel abandoned themselves in terms of feeling isolated, not having a support system in which they can vent, talk, whatever," Peters said.
This past week, a newborn infant was discovered and pulled alive from a trash can in Kearns. Alicia Englert, 23, faces possible charges of attempted homicide after her newborn baby girl was rescued and taken to a hospital. According to jail records, the infant had received no medical treatment or nutrition before she was discarded.
Englert was being held in the Salt Lake County jail and the investigation is ongoing. Police said the baby was in critical condition Friday but stable and showing signs of improvement.
The number of child abandonment cases in Utah is actually declining and experts point to awareness of resources and the willingness of people to get involved as a reason. In 2001, 28 children were abandoned, dropping to 10 children last year.
How to help
There is a wide array of resources in the community to help expectant mothers and parents who feel overwhelmed, which includes the state's "Safe Haven" law that allows mothers to relinquish newborns up to 72 hours old to hospitals, to referrals to community resources by DCFS's statewide intake hotline at 1-855-323-3237.
The hotline, staffed 24/7, is also the number to report suspected child abuse and neglect, Totten said. "It is also a resource people in the community do use. I would like to see them use it more," she said.
The hotline can connect callers to support, therapy, classes and family meetings and many other community resources.
"These are things we can offer that sometimes people are too stressed out to know about it. There hasn't been enough emphasis in the community. They didn't know the could call the intake line and say, 'I'm in this situation. What can I do?' There are a lot of services we can refer to without our agency ever being involved."
DCFS statistics indicate that child abandonment is most often reported by family members, law enforcement and health care professionals. While child abandonment occurs in children newborn to age 17, abandonment of children under the age of 1 appears to be most common.
Drug abuse is often a factor, Peters said. If a pregnancy results from rape or sexual abuse, shame can be a factor, she said.
In some cases, parents receive little emotional support from their families, or worse, harsh judgment, she said
"Sometimes we are the most judgmental when it's within our own family. They don't need that. It's not our place to judge," Peters said.
"It's so sad to think of the sorrow, pain and shame these birth mothers can feel."
Close friends and loved ones who are aware of circumstances that could result in child abandonment, neglect or abuse could help but feel conflicted about reporting it to authorities, Totten said.
"Some people say, 'Should I report or should I help?' It's not mutually exclusive. You can report it to people who need to know while also offering help. You can do both of those things," she said.
Callers to DCFS's child abuse hotline can remain anonymous but they need to share vital information about the situation.
It is important that family members attempt to keep lines of communication and their doors open to relatives in crisis because isolation can be perilous.
"If people are ostracized, all that's left around them are the people who are drug users like they are," Totten said.
Totten said it is important, too, that families attempt to help because if a child has to be removed from his or her home, caseworkers seek out kin to place the child.
DCFS has dedicated kinship teams that can quickly conduct home visits and background checks of family members where children can be placed. Placing children with people they know is less traumatic than temporarily moving into a foster home but it is sometimes necessary when no kin can be located or they are not appropriate caregivers.
Totten, who has worked for the division for 18 years in a number of roles, said providing a family with services or entering a family in the court process often results in good outcomes.
Families receive services intended to help them overcome the issues that resulted in child neglect, abuse or abandonment. There are multiple layers of accountability to juvenile court judges, DCFS caseworkers, mental health professionals, substance abuse programs and other professionals that work with the parents.
"There's nine months of (parents saying) 'Why did you do this to me?' to 'Oh, thank you so much for your help. I appreciate you.'
"I tell my workers, remember those days because there's going to be a lot of days between now and the next time you hear that from somebody."