On a normal workday morning in the late 1990s, Elissa Davey read the newspaper at her kitchen table. In the paper that day, there was a story that Davey would have a hard time forgetting — a newborn baby found dead, with the parents out of the picture. A month would pass before Davey, unable to stop thinking about the child, phoned the county coroner’s office. What she learned shocked her, which then led to a national drive to give abandoned newborns a final resting place.
“He said that if nobody claims him, he goes into an unmarked grave,” said Davey. She then asked him how one claims a baby, to which the coroner responded, “Show me that you have a dignified place to bury him.”
In 1999, Davey answered that call by founding Garden of Innocence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding burial sites for the many unclaimed, deceased newborns that are either abandoned at hospitals, fire or police departments or, as in the story Davey read on that morning more than a decade ago, found in dumpsters, ditches or in sewers. Her first site in San Diego currently hosts 146 children.
In 2005, Davey expanded Garden of Innocence nationally in order to have a bigger impact on what she sees as an expansive and unanswered issue, with gardens across California and into Washington, Oregon and Arizona, and she plans for more on the East Coast as well.
Garden of Innocence by the Sea at the Ivy Lawn Memorial Park will have room enough for 257 newborn children, according to Ivy Lawn General Manager Jeanne Clark, and is expected to host its first children this August.
The children buried at the Garden of Innocence by the Sea will come from both Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, though Ivy Lawn was not the first choice for the location. After a long search that took Davey through Santa Barbara County, she realized that land was too expensive for a project that relies on donations. It was then that Ivy Lawn Memorial Park was chosen, and the Garden of Innocence local director, Lori Sanchez, became involved with the project.
While visiting a local AAMCO Transmissions branch in Santa Barbara, Davey spoke with owner Rudy Sanchez about the Garden of Innocence, and he relayed the information to his wife, Lori. After meeting with Lori, Davey asked her to volunteer as the director of the Santa Barbara and Ventura County project, while Rudy became an ambassador.
It takes nearly 16 people to fully operate any one of the gardens, with duties that range from maintenance of the site to collecting donations, from monetary gifts to small toys that will be buried with the children. Often volunteers are asked to name the child, as many of them remain unnamed after cremation.
“The challenge right now is to get people informed about what’s going on,” said Sanchez. “People don’t think it happens, but it does.”
In California, the Safely Surrendered Baby Law of 2001 protects mothers from prosecution if they choose to surrender a newborn baby within 72 hours of birth. From 2001 through March of this year, some 636 babies have been safely given over to the state at designated drop-off locations. For mothers with deceased children, however, the only option is to drop them off at the hospitals, where often investigations ensue. Young mothers especially, afraid of the consequences, sometimes choose instead to abandon their babies.
“I sometimes get asked, ‘How many times has this happened?’ Isn’t one enough?” asks Lori.
Back in San Diego, Davey recently assisted in the burial of six babies. Lori has three ready for burial when the project is completed at Ivy Lawn, one of which had been lost in the vaults of a local mortuary for 22 years.
While Ivy Lawn is donating the space and plots for the Garden, it will cost close to $200 per child buried at the garden. Lori says that they are also looking for donations in the form of toys, blankets and other goods for the children who will be buried at Ivy Lawn. Some money raised will also go toward the national effort to build more such gardens.
“We need to build more and more gardens so the communities can take care of their children and have a special place for them,” says Davey. “A garden turns into a very special place.”
Jeanne Clark, general manager at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park, says the cemetery is right for the new garden.
“Death is not that much different from life, it’s all about land and space,” said Clark, who says that land in the area comes at a premium. “It’s a sacrifice is what it comes down to, but Ivy Lawn can afford to make that sacrifice for the community and we want to.”
Both Sanchez and Davey say that the Garden of Innocence not only gives the unborn children buried in their plot closure, but it also helps those who discovered the children or were otherwise involved with the babies to feel that their part is done and it’s time to move on.
“That story ended, this story began,” said Davey. “The day we get them, they’re going home and we’re going to celebrate that they were here with us for just this short time.”