Graves for the abandoned: 'Every child deserves a resting place'

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - A new nonprofit group is setting up in Kern County, and it may be here just in time to respond to the death of the baby found abandoned in an Oildale trash can.

Eyewitness News discovered the Garden of Innocence project has been working with the Historic Union Cemetery, and its hope is that the infant from Beardsley Avenue can be laid to rest in the new space.

The body of the newborn girl was found last Friday morning. Exactly one week later, crews planted an oak tree in the plot at Union Cemetery designated for a local Garden of Innocence.

While the tree was going in, cemetery officials and the Garden of Innocence founder were meeting.

"We're just waiting to see if the county would release the baby to us, so that we can take care of it," Garden founder Elissa Davey told Eyewitness News. "It's going to be their decision what they want to do. But, we'll be ready."

Cemetery General Manager Dave Hepburn said his organization was approached by Davey several months ago.

"We just felt, and I just felt, very good about it as a concept," he said. "I also felt good that we had space that we could put it in."

He said Union Cemetery donated 1,200 square feet.

Hepburn said a granite bench and children's blocks will eventually be added.

He and Davey have heard about the Oildale baby.

"It was shocking, first of all," Hepburn said. "And the next thing I thought was, we need to make sure our garden is ready, because we're still in the process of getting it done. But, it will be ready in time."

On June 21, Reggie Groves was bringing his trash can in from the curb in the 500 block of Beardsley Avenue. He realized something was inside, and found the newborn infant's body. Groves was very glad to hear about the project to bury babies like that.

"That's perfect," Groves told Eyewitness News. "It couldn't be better timing that this organization, or whatever, is coming forward."

Garden of Innocence said it's an established 501(c)(3) nonprofit, based in Carlsbad. Davey said they have gardens in 22 counties in California and sites in St. Louis and in New York. She said they're working in various other areas, and their goal is having a Garden of Innocence in every state.

"Every child deserves a resting place," Davey said. "Every child deserves somebody that will care for them, somebody that'll pay attention to the fact that they were once here."

Kern County Sheriff's spokesman Ray Pruitt said the coroner's office here has an agreement with the organization. Pruitt explained that various local funeral homes will volunteer to take the body of an abandoned baby, then the nonprofit will provide a burial service and headstone.

Davey said the headstone will include a name for the baby, and people donating to the charity are given the honor of selecting a name.

"It will be anybody in the county can name a baby," she explained. "We have a list and we start to keep track of it, and when we're getting a baby, then the next one on the list gets chosen."

Davey said the group feels it's important the child has the human dignity of a name. The headstone also lists only the date the child is buried, since they don't know when these babies were born or died.

The Kern County Sheriff's Office is still investigating the death of the baby found in Oildale, and officers say they want any information from the public. People can call (661) 861-3110 or the Secret Witness hotline at (661) 322-4040. Investigators believe the infant had been left in the trash can for no more than about a day.

Davey said she thinks about the final moments in the lives of these children.

"I wonder what the child felt. I wonder if they were alive," she said. "You also wonder about the parent, and what were they thinking? And were there problems that were going on in their lives that would make them do that?"

Hepburn is glad Union Cemetery can be part of the new project.

"It's not who's right in some situations, but it's what's right," he said. "And I think it's right for us to provide this burial space and the care forever. That's what we do."

The man who found the baby's body had immediately asked Eyewitness News about burial for the child.

"I was just hoping," Groves said. "Thankfully my prayers came true, and maybe a lot of other people's prayers. Maybe that's what got it to happen."

Cemetery manager Hepburn said the whole project should be ready in 30 to 45 days, but they hope to take this child first as part of the new partnership with Garden of Innocence.

That group's founder said they have a clear mission.

"Because these children never get to choose their path of life, they never got to have a chance," she said. "We want the community to come together and take care of a child that nobody else cared for. We want to love it, and show it dignity."