(Greenville Online) – The death of a newborn child who was found in a trash bag at a local restaurant last week has raised concerns about whether the state has done enough to educate all of its communities about South Carolina’s safe haven laws.
Police say Estela Ruiz-Gomez, 18, gave birth and dumped the newborn into a trash bin on July 12 at La Parrilla, the restaurant where she worked at 1 Market Point Drive. Ruiz-Gomez was arrested and charged with homicide by child abuse. Her mother, Lorenza Gomez Rodriguez, 41, was charged with homicide by child abuse, aiding and abetting, after the baby died, according to warrants.
The Safe Haven Act for Abandoned Babies was enacted in 2000 and allows for the safe abandonment of a healthy newborn to any official at a specified place.
Rev. Alejandro Mejia, pastor of Parroquia Nuestro Salvador, questions whether the 18-year-old woman knew about the law when she gave birth to the baby boy in the restaurant bathroom.
Mejia said a lack of information and fear in impoverished communities causes people to make poor decisions.“If the government doesn’t provide information in a way that is available for all, it will be really difficult to prevent this situation from happening again,” said Mejia, who added that people in immigrant communities are especially susceptible to this dilemma. “If they were undocumented, there is always that fear that you are going to lose everything. So, if that’s your fear then you are going to make the wrong decision.”
“I’m sure if these two ladies knew there were options, it would have been possible that this story would not have occurred,” Mejia said.
Marilyn Matheus a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services said DSS works routinely with the South Carolina Hospital Association and the Bar Association to disseminate information regarding the law. Information regarding the law is available online in both English and Spanish.
“Clearly the law works, as is evidenced by the number of safe abandonments each year,” Matheus said. “Although it’s not a high number any year, if one child is saved by being placed in a safe haven it’s well worth it. However, anything our partners, including the media, can do to assist us in educating the public is greatly appreciated and further supports our efforts to keep children in South Carolina safe.”
According to the law, known as Daniel’s law, safe havens are defined as hospitals, law enforcement agencies, or places of worship that are staffed. Wilfredo Leon, editor and publisher of Latino Newspaper, and a member of the 2017 Hispanic Alliance board of directors, questioned the public’s exposure to the law. Leon, who has worked in Greenville for more than two decades, said he had never heard of the law before.
“If I was running that department, it would be extremely important to have as many people in the community aware of these laws,” Leon said. “I would try to implement a way or a strategy to let everyone know about it.”Ruiz-Gomez bussed tables while Rodriguez worked as dishwasher, police said.
Juan Fernando Henao, vice president of La Parrilla, said: “Our company mourns with the community over the death of this newborn child. We are fully cooperating with police investigations. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that this young woman did not turn to us for help from the beginning.”
Henoa said the company uses E-Verify for all employees and that Rodriguez and Ruiz-Gomez presented legal documentation during the hiring process that indicated they were legally authorized to work in the U.S. Homeland Security is investigating Ruiz-Gomez and her mother because of their immigration status, city police said.
Based on a recent report submitted by DSS, six infants in the Upstate, all African American, were given to the state through Daniel’s Law from July 2016 to June.In Greenville County, there were six cases of infants abandoned during fiscal year 2015-2016, according to statistics from Department of Social Services. Statewide, there were 81 infants abandoned during that time, according to DSS. So far this year, there have been 14 cases of child abuse/neglect in the city this year, said Johnathan Bragg, master patrolman for the Greenville Police Department. Similar data was not readily available for Greenville County.
This year, legislators voted to amend the law with House Bill 3116, changing the time frame from 60 days to 1-year-old in which a child can be left at a safe haven. The bill heads to the state senate in January.
Children’s Trust is an agency that advocates for children’s rights.“The most number of child deaths related to abuse and neglect occur before the child is 1 year old,” said Children’s Trust CEO, Sue Williams, explaining the amendment to the law.
“They are concerned if the parent feels they have no other resources then they need to have a place to safely turn that child over without fear of prosecution.” It is unknown at this time how long Ruiz-Gomez and Rodriguez had worked at the restaurant. The two women are being held without bond, Bragg said. The case is still under investigation, Bragg said.