In the ‘Baby June’ case, a pattern but no precedent. Why do mothers let their newborns die?

Shira Moolten/Sun Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — She gave birth in secret, perhaps in a hotel bathroom, entirely alone.

She was poor or financially dependent, the baby’s father not in the picture.

In the months leading up to the birth, she denied she was pregnant, or struggled with a deep ambivalence over what would soon become her fate.

Somehow, she kept her entire pregnancy secret from nearly everyone around her, and few, if any, asked questions.

The baby died, perhaps by accident, perhaps not. She didn’t tell anyone. She tried to dispose of the body, but it was discovered.

Her arrest sparked outrage, as those around her wondered what kind of person could kill their own child or let it die.

Prosecutors declared that they would seek justice to the fullest extent of the law.

The details of the case may bring to mind that of Arya Singh, 29, arrested Dec. 15 on charges of killing her newborn baby girl in 2018 and disposing of the body in the Boynton Beach Inlet. But the same details could describe hundreds of women.

The women may be different, but the pattern is the same. The crime of killing a baby less than 24 hours after it is born is called “neonaticide,” and the “Baby June” case is only the most recent example of a story that, in various iterations, dates back to the beginning of human civilization.

Singh, a campus security guard based in Boynton Beach, was arrested nearly four years after the newborn was found in the Boynton Beach Inlet. Prosecutors with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office have charged her with first-degree murder, which carries a minimum sentence of life in prison.

Some facts of the case, such as exactly how long “Baby June” was alive, are not confirmed. Singh told detectives that the baby died by drowning in a hotel bathroom soon after she was born.

Despite its beginnings in ancient history, in the U.S, neonaticide and infant abandonment more generally lack precedent when brought to the courtroom, the punishments for mothers varying from probation to psychiatric treatment to decades behind bars.

Over the past two decades, “Safe Haven” laws were created to reduce neonaticide cases by allowing women to leave newborns in designated locations, no questions asked. And up until June of this year, abortion rights gave some pregnant women a way out of carrying an unwanted baby to term.

But mothers still kill their babies. The question is why?

A history of unwanted children

The concept of abandoning — or killing — a newborn dates back to the Middle Ages, when unwanted pregnancies were so prevalent that churches kept turntables in their walls, like a library book return but for babies.

A mother would arrive at the church in the dead of night and drop her baby inside, then ring a bell. The church would take the baby, no questions asked, and raise it as an orphan, while the mother would continue with her life.

Most cultures have some version of concealed pregnancy infanticide dating back centuries, said Michelle Oberman, a professor at the Santa Clara University law school who studies the ethical issues surrounding motherhood. In China, for example, a preference for sons over daughters would show up in birth rates, as baby boys appeared disproportionately more than girls.

“As long as humans have been having babies, they’ve been stuck with what to do with mouths they can’t feed or babies they can’t rear,” she said.

The “Baby June” case will not be the first time a mother has stood trial for the abandonment or death of a newborn in South Florida. In multiple cases across the past 20 years, mothers have given birth, then killed or abandoned their newborns, often leaving them in the garbage.

Despite its long history, each new case of neonaticide comes as a sort of shock to the community, Oberman said.

Sometimes, the case becomes the subject of national fixation, and the mothers gain a sort of notoriety, like the “Prom Mom” killer, Melissa Drexler, who gave birth in the bathroom of her high school prom in New Jersey in 1997, then suffocated the baby, before returning to the dance. She pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

There is no exact number for how many neonaticide cases have been tried before in Palm Beach County, or in the United States overall. The U.S legal system doesn’t distinguish them from other homicides, making the course and outcomes difficult to predict.

Tracking these crimes is further complicated by the fact that, if a mother did in fact succeed in hiding her pregnancy and the baby’s body was never found, no one would know about it.

“We have no idea what the denominator is,” Oberman said. “We know the numerator. When we find it, we find it. But we don’t know how many we’re missing.”

‘Murder is murder’

The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office doesn’t categorize neonaticide cases any differently from other homicides.

“Nobody’s keeping track of how many 24-year-old victims are killed as opposed to babies who are killed,” said Marc Freeman, a spokesperson for the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. “We’re not tracking the age. Murder is murder; that’s the charge.”

Some American legal experts argue that neonaticide and infanticide cases ought to be treated differently from murder, though. Several countries have laws that distinguish neonaticide and infanticide from other homicides. In Britain, for example, the Infanticide Act of 1938 established that infanticide be punished as a lesser charge than murder.

The U.S does not have any overarching laws regarding infanticide, which means that the outcomes of these cases tend to be highly inconsistent, though Oberman believes they follow a pattern of “overcharging and under-convicting.”

Typically, prosecutors and the community express moral outrage over the act itself, the killing of the newborn, but juries ultimately show leniency to the mother who commits the act.

In South Florida, known cases are few and far between, and the results are mixed.

Rafaelle Sousa, 28, pleaded guilty in Palm Beach County court to attempted murder and child abuse after she left her baby in a dumpster in West Boca Raton. In July, she was sentenced to 7½ years in prison and given 40 months’ credit for time served.

On the other hand, Meshia Morant, 30, faced attempted murder charges in Broward County in 2008 after she gave birth in the bathroom of a home in Lauderdale Lakes, cutting the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. She had placed the baby in a garbage bag and was planning to dispose of it when the homeowners found her with the bag and called 911. Morant was sentenced in 2010 to five years of state probation.

“She never really wanted to admit she was pregnant,” Marivel Velez, the apartment complex’s manager, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel at the time.

And in 2012, Alexandria Sladon-Marler, 33, was accused of leaving her newborn baby in a trash bin outside of a hotel in Fort Lauderdale. She had given birth, then was taken from the hotel to the hospital for medical treatment. Hours later, police found her baby, dead, in a trash bin outside of the hotel. Sladon-Marler was charged with aggravated manslaughter.

Because Sladon-Marler was often homeless and suffered from drug addiction and mental health issues, she was judged incompetent to stand trial and was placed in the care of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

None of these cases present a perfect match to Singh’s.

“You’re talking about a real handful of cases,” Freeman said. “It’s definitely unusual.”

Whether or not Singh will ultimately face first-degree murder charges remains to be seen. A grand jury will have to decide whether or not to indict Singh on those charges. Even then, she may avoid a first-degree murder conviction if she is offered a plea deal.

The profile of a mother who kills

While the outcomes of these cases vary, experts agree that mothers who kill their newborns share distinctive traits, both in terms of their immediate surroundings and the resources available to them.

Despite living in a developed country with access to healthcare, many of the women who kill or abandon newborns are unable to care for a child. They often work full time and barely make enough to support themselves, or live at home with parents who might not support their pregnancy. The father of the baby is typically not in the picture.

Oftentimes, they feel so ashamed, they tell no one about the pregnancy, or deny it to themselves. Many hope they will miscarry. Sometimes, they convince themselves that they have.

“They can’t bring themselves to reveal what they’re concealing,” said Martha Smithey, a sociology professor at Texas Tech University who studies neonaticides. “They get so good at it they can kind of fool themselves.”

They aren’t necessarily mentally ill prior to their pregnancy, Oberman said, but are under enough “psychic distress” to deny their pregnancies until they have no choice but to confront them.

What is perhaps most striking, she said, is that oftentimes, no one asks, which contributes to the mothers’ sense of isolation. The family members and friends can enter a kind of denial state, too, ignoring physical signs or explaining them away, even when those signs are obvious.

Many of these mothers are marked by a “really profound social isolation,” Oberman said. “Over the course of time, what has most distressed me about these stories is the extent to which these women had nobody they could tell.”

Nick Silverio founded A Safe Haven for Newborns, a Miami-based organization dedicated to preventing infant abandonment in Florida, 21 years ago.

The organization offers an anonymous hotline for women struggling with unwanted pregnancies. Most of the women who call the hotline are going through their pregnancies alone, Silverio said, the father absent.

“They’re desperate, they’re all alone, there’s no support, and nowhere to turn,” he said. Many recent callers are also struggling with housing instability, an uptick after the pandemic. He has helped move them into homeless shelters for pregnant women, but said the shelters are often full.

A safe haven for babies?

The churches of the Middle Ages have been replaced by fire stations and hospitals.

In 2000, Florida enacted its own version of a Safe Haven law, which allows women to leave children less than a week old at recognized facilities, including hospitals and fire stations, no questions asked. Similar laws were introduced across the United States in order to deter neonaticides, and studies suggest they have have proved effective.

Still, women continue to kill their newborns.

Oberman described Safe Haven laws as “quick fix.” More needs to be done to prevent neonaticide, she said, such as reducing the stigma that leads women, particularly young women, to hide their pregnancies in the first place, making healthcare more accessible, and changing the gender norms that place the burden on women alone to raise children.

Safe Haven laws can be confusing to mothers, and are not applied the same way in every state, Smithey said. Sometimes the mother does not actually remain anonymous because officials need to be able to investigate whether there was foul play.

The Florida statute dictates that “a criminal investigation shall not be initiated solely because a newborn infant is left at a hospital ... unless there is actual or suspected child abuse or neglect.”

So why not get an abortion? Before this year, women in Florida had that option up to 24 weeks into their pregnancies.

Many women lack the resources and information required to get an abortion, Smithey said. In states with more conservative abortion laws, like Florida, some women may have felt that abortions were inaccessible even if they were technically legal. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, some experts fear that neonaticides may become more common, but it is too early to say.

Women with unwanted pregnancies often feel conflicted over what to do with the baby. They may not have the means to raise a child, but that doesn’t mean they want to give it up. Indecision leads to procrastination, and soon it is too late.

“We tell them they don’t have to make that decision about relinquishing the baby until their baby is born,” Silviero said of the women who call the hotline.

That debilitating ambivalence applies to many neonaticide cases.

A newborn baby presents evidence of what a mother was so ashamed of, but it is also a companion to someone who may otherwise feel alone.

“On one hand there’s, ‘Oh my God, how am I gonna do this?’” Oberman said. “On the other hand, there’s a baby. A baby might love me. It would be somebody to love.”