- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

DENVER To Lisa Levatino, the trash bin behind a Chinese restaurant here seemed like a good place to leave her newborn boy because she wanted him found quickly and the alley is busy with foot traffic.

It's also cold, damp and strewn with litter and cigarette butts. Luckily for her baby, the owner of the restaurant found the crying infant unharmed and called 911. Nicknamed Buster by a nurse at the Denver Health Medical Center, the baby boy has since been placed with foster parents who have expressed interest in adopting him.

That might have been the end of Buster's saga, but for one thing: His 23-year-old mother now says she wants him back. Miss Levatino has been charged with misdemeanor child abuse for abandoning the day-old infant March 8, but authorities say that won't necessarily prevent her from regaining custody.

That a mother who abandoned a newborn in the near-freezing cold could still be allowed to raise the child has left many Coloradans sputtering with disbelief. "Doesn't this child have the right to be raised by someone whose first thought upon looking at him is not, 'How can I get rid of you?' " asked Mary Dreger of Golden, Colo., in a letter to the editor typical of those flooding the Denver newspapers.

Donna Good, deputy senior manager of the Denver Department of Human Services, said the child-welfare code of Colorado requires that the state "explore the possibility" of returning Buster to his mother. The department has a year to decide where to place the infant.

Department officials have never returned an abandoned infant to its mother, she said, because they've never seen a similar case. "This is really 100-year snowstorm stuff because it just doesn't happen very often," Mrs. Good said. "Usually the parents don't come forward. It's unusual to even find the parents, much less have them ask for custody."

But her department has inadvertently fueled the uproar with statements that seem to support returning Buster to his mother. Mrs. Good has been quoted as saying her office would "try very, very hard to see if that could happen" and praising Miss Levatino as someone with the "potential to become a real mom and reasonable parent."

Such comments prompted a sarcastic response from the Rocky Mountain News. "Well, we'd love to see Lisa Levatino realize her potential, too, but not with Buster," the newspaper said in an editorial opposing her custody bid.

Ironically, the Buster case comes less than a year after Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to approve a so-called Baby Moses law, which allows parents to leave a newborn at a designated safe haven, such as a fire station or hospital. The law was intended to protect unwanted babies from being left to die in Dumpsters and public rest rooms.

The first law went into effect in Texas in 1999 after a rash of baby abandonments 13 babies were discovered within 10 months in the Houston area. The idea has since snowballed, with 20 state legislatures approving their own Baby Moses laws over the past two years, said Joyce Johnson, spokeswoman for the Child Welfare League of America.

But critics have argued that the laws amount to little more than posturing since women who abandon babies are often young, uneducated and unlikely to be keeping up with changes in the state criminal code. There are also concerns about the message such laws send about the value of infant life.

No infant has been abandoned in a safe haven in Colorado since the law took effect in June, said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.

"I'm sure this woman had no idea such a law was on the books," said Jim Chapman, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Family Council, which opposed the law. "This is a classic case of legislators saying, 'We'll pass a law to solve a problem,' and then nothing happens. The remedy here is the importance of community, family and teaching people how to resolve these problems."

Before Miss Levatino can gain custody of Buster, Mrs. Good said, she'll have to prove she can provide him with a stable home environment. The department is now conducting interviews with Miss Levatino and her mother, who has also asked to raise Buster, calling family conferences and inspecting her home and living situation.

The department must also factor in the rights of the father. An unidentified man claiming to be the father has taken a DNA test to prove his paternity. The results are pending.

Police identified Miss Levatino as the mother after conducting a door-to-door search of the East Colfax Avenue neighborhood near the Grand China Restaurant. After her roommate identified her as the possible mother, Miss Levatino denied it, but within minutes she admitted the baby was hers.

She surrendered custody of the infant to human services but visited him several times in the hospital and receives regular visitation privileges.

"She's an odd case," said Mrs. Good. "From the minute she declared she was the mother, she's acted completely responsibly except, of course, that before she abandoned the baby."

Cases of mothers seeking to regain abandoned babies are so rare as to make generalizations impossible, but they tend to fall under the same guidelines as other incidents of child neglect or abuse, said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law.

"Certainly abandoning a baby by a Dumpster is such a gross act by accepted standards of parenting that the mother has a lot to overcome," Mr. Davidson said. "But certainly other parents have overcome a lot more. There are parents who have killed a child and been able to keep custody of their other children."

Working in Miss Levatino's favor is that Buster was found unharmed, that she wrapped him in a blanket and that she appeared to put some thought into where she abandoned him. "If she put the baby next to the trash can, not in the trash can, that's a different circumstance," Mrs. Johnson said.

She recalled a case in which a college student delivered a baby in her dormitory room, cleaned and wrapped the baby, and then placed the newborn in a trash bin she could see from her window. The student then called campus police, who found the infant unharmed.

The student ultimately admitted her maternity and won custody of the baby, Mrs. Johnson said.

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