October 24, 2005

"Charity buries bodies of unclaimed babies"

by Michele Munz


Baby William died belonging to no one. He was born 12 weeks premature and barely 2 pounds. His mother, homeless and a drug addict, told hospital workers that she wanted to put him up for adoption and signed the papers giving up her parental rights. As soon as the mother was discharged, she left without a trace.

After nearly three weeks, it was clear William wasn't going to survive. He was taken off his ventilator and feeding tube and died in the arms of his foster mother.  Lutheran Family and Children's Services of Missouri, the agency working with William's mother, had not yet identified an adoptive family because of his health.

Even so, William got a proper burial thanks to a fledgling organization called Garden of Innocents.

A hospital social worker had suggested that the children's services agency call Garden of Innocents.

Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey of St. Charles, 30, started the organization two years ago. Thanks to her work, a funeral home picked up William's body at the hospital. His body was embalmed and dressed in a white cap, booties and gown knitted by volunteers. He was buried with a teddy bear in a white plastic casket lined with satin.

About 30 people - his doctors, nurses and social workers - attended his funeral service at a chapel near his burial spot in Calvary Cemetery. Flowers adorned his casket. A pastor spoke. People sang and wept.

"As sad and terrible as that case was," Navarro-McKelvey said, "he was very loved while he was here, and he was able to have a funeral where he was very missed."

Stark burials  

Navarro-McKelvey, a white-collar crime prosecutor for the St. Louis circuit attorney's office, started Garden of Innocents after watching a news story that made her stomach churn: A mother had smashed her 2-month-old daughter's head against a curb in St. Louis. Witnesses said they saw Jilanda Daniels, 19, then throw her baby, Destiny Daniels, into the street and kick her.

Navarro-McKelvey's own baby was 6 months old at the time. She called the St. Louis medical examiner's office.

"If this little girl doesn't have a family, I want to raise money and bury her," Navarro-McKelvey said.

Jilanda Daniels is in jail charged with murder and currently not competent to stand trial. The medical examiner's chief investigator, Rose Psara, noted that Destiny's grandmother was claiming her but that she was indigent and needed help with expenses. 

So Navarro-McKelvey started the Destiny Daniels Memorial Fund. She got enough money to cover the cost of the funeral and had $1,000 left over, which she donated to Court Appointed Special Advocates, a child abuse advocacy group. 

But then Navarro-McKelvey wondered: What happens to children who have no family to claim them?

Psara explained how a few times a year, her office comes across abandoned babies. If the office can't locate next of kin - or the relatives don't care enough to have or attend a funeral - the babies are deemed "unclaimed" and left for the city to bury. The bodies are kept at the morgue - sometimes for weeks - until a private undertaker can pick them up and take them to Friedens Cemetery in Baden, the lowest bidder for the service.

They are not embalmed. They are buried nude in tiny caskets with no one around.

"I was very upset by that, especially as a mother," said Navarro-McKelvey, now a mother of two. "I just couldn't believe that someone would leave this world and no one would care." 

A larger need

Navarro-McKelvey incorporated her organization and approached Monsignor Robert McCarthy, director of Catholic Cemeteries of St. Louis. If he would provide the plots, she would find a way to pay for the burials, she told him.

He agreed and set aside a 20-foot square area in a tree-shaded area of Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis for the exclusive use of Garden of Innocents. 

Within a month, there was Antonio. He was born prematurely in a toilet to a teenage mother. 

Then came William in April of last year. 

And this past spring, was baby Edward, 2 months old. His young parents were returning to St. Louis by train after visiting relatives when he died of a sudden illness. The couple was receiving support through Lutheran Family and Children's Services, and once again, the agency turned to Navarro-McKelvey for help. Though the baby wasn't unclaimed, she couldn't turn them down. She got the body to St. Louis and organized a funeral service and cremation at the family's request. 

Navarro-McKelvey would like to help more indigent families. 

Margie Batek, the supervisor of the child protection program at St. Louis Children's Hospital, said, "There's definitely a need she could meet on a greater scale if she had the resources available to do that." Batek says she comes across a family at least once a month with no idea how to pay for their infant's burial. 

Each time there's a death, Navarro-McKelvey is on the phone begging to get items donated. She pays $50 a month out of her own pocket to maintain the Garden of Innocents Web site. 

Janie Burse, assistant director of child welfare service at Lutheran Family and Children's Services, hopes that someday, William's mother will turn her life around. Maybe she'll want to know what happened to her baby boy. 

Just in case, Burse saved William's blanket, a program from his funeral and a teddy bear left by a mourner. She pressed a flower from his casket bouquet. 

"We will let her know that he had a beautiful ceremony," Burse said. "We hope she'll have some sense of peace that he was really taken care of."