Does nonprofit Garden of Innocence honor abandoned children—or secretly conduct extravagant burials for stillborn fetuses in Sacramento?
Nonprofit says it offers ’dignified burials for abandoned and unidentified children,' but county coroner says that's hardly ever the case
During an overcast September morning on a grassy mortuary plot in Citrus Heights, more than a hundred mourners observed the final dedication for 20 “abandoned” children.
Backdropped by small caskets on a rain-dappled lawn, the crowd handed tiny wooden urns around their solemn circle, offering personal blessings, reciting poems and loosing butterflies into the gray sky. Whenever someone wondered aloud what sort of parent would abandon their dead son or daughter, the man responsible scuttled the topic.
“We can’t stop what a parent would do,” Victor Hipolito Jr. told gatherers. “It doesn’t matter. Thank you for stepping forward while others turned their backs.”
This is the creed of Garden of Innocence National, an expanding nonprofit that claims to provide “dignified burial services for abandoned and unidentified children.”
Problem is, the souls being interred this gloomy September morning aren’t abandoned children at all. They’re stillborn fetuses recovered from hospitals, under a contractual blessing from Sacramento County. And the parents who suffered these miscarriages may not know what’s being done with the fruits of their grief.
Formed 15 years ago in San Diego by founder Elissa Davey, Garden of Innocence recently landed in Sacramento, where it secured a written contract with the county to bury every child 8 years and younger that isn’t claimed within 30 days of his or her death. The mission sounds saintly, right down to the nonprofit’s Edenic name. Garden of Innocence has 17 chapters scattered mostly throughout California and include some far-flung ones in Alaska and Poland.
“It’s all for the babies,” Hipolito, area manager of the new GOI Sierra chapter, told SN&R.
But the perception that the group cares for discarded children is different from the reality. Sacramento hasn’t suffered an outbreak of abandoned, dead children.
“I can’t remember the last child that was an abandoned baby,” said Sacramento County Coroner Gregory Wyatt, who expected the case to be the same in each of the counties where Garden of Innocence operates.
Instead, the organization has commandeered a more taboo market—conducting extravagant burial rites for stillborn infants, while raising thorny questions about the prohibitive costs of grief, as well as the difference between dignifying a loss and exploiting it.
According to Wyatt, “99 percent” of the children Garden of Innocence recovers are stillborn fetuses delivered in local hospitals and not taken home by their parents. “They’re not what you think,” he told SN&R.
Hospitals are required to file death certificates on all stillbirths that have reached at least 20 weeks of gestation. If parents don’t claim these fetuses within 30 days, the hospitals turn them over to the coroner’s office.
Before Garden of Innocence came along, the coroner facilitated the cremation and interment of these bodies for a mass burial. The process was slow and cost taxpayer money.
The coroner credits the nonprofit with freeing up his office’s resources and providing individualized attention to each stillborn fetus. The all-volunteer organization names each “child” and writes poems for him or her. It also pays about $700 per fetus for death certificates, cremation and interment. It also buys each infant an obituary, a grave marker and a toy they’ll never play with.
“From a publicity standpoint,” Wyatt said the nonprofit, which runs on donations, may benefit financially from the perception that it’s conducting funeral rites for abandoned, full-term infants or young children, rather than miscarried fetuses.
“Abandoned children and babies, they about never happen,” he added.
At least locally, it remains to be seen whether the grieving parents knew their “abandoned” fetuses went to a group that provided them names and multifaith funeral services.
“I can’t tell you,” said Diane Galati, senior director of Mercy San Juan Medical Center. “Personally, I can’t see my parents wanting to do that.”
Galati stressed that spontaneous miscarriages are rare at her hospital and that when they do happen, “our parents take their babies.”
Many others may not have that choice.
According to a 2012 national survey conducted by online resource eFuneral, average funeral costs exceeded $8,500 for burial services and notched just a bit more than $3,700 for cremation.
“I’ve certainly run across where [parents] couldn’t afford to pay,” said Sacramento therapist Jeanette Maria Salinas, who specializes in grief and loss counseling.
Some mortuary homes will waive fees for low-income families, said Galati, and The Child Abuse Prevention Center has a fund to help such parents.
For everyone else, Garden of Innocence will mourn their children for them.
Whether this is an act of grace or presumptuousness could depend on the individual. Online discussion forums for parents who miscarried reveal a community that grieves mostly in private, choosing not to tell family members they were ever pregnant, much less that they suffered a devastating loss.
Hipolito acknowledged occasions where parents contacted his group about reclaiming their children’s remains, but said such overtures are rejected.
“They’re already abandoned at that point,” said the part-time airport employee. “We don’t share those stories, because it doesn’t really matter.”
“What dignifies the child is they’re getting a burial. Garden of Innocence is honoring the child by giving them a name.”
It might matter to some, including donors who assume they’re supporting funerals for abandoned children. And to the parents whose private losses actually fuel this spectacle of grief.
At the September 21 ceremony at Sierra Hills Memorial Park & East Lawn Mortuary, members of Catholic organization Knights of Columbus escorted 20 handcrafted urns into the circle of mourners. Hipolito spoke, as did a police chaplain, Christian reverend and nondenominational minister. Two people sang, and doves were released at the end of the 90-minute ceremony. Hipolito described it as “beautiful.”
SN&R contacted a half-dozen child and medical professionals for this story. No one was aware of the county’s contract with Garden of Innocence, but most expressed discomfort with the group’s modus operandi.
“That does not sound like what we contract for,” said one birthing-center director, who didn’t speak for attribution.
Sheila Boxley, president and CEO of the Child Abuse Prevention Center, hadn’t heard of Garden of Innocence, but said the organization’s mission “raises all kinds of questions.”
Founder Davey didn’t return a request for comment, but her organization has another local funeral scheduled for October 19, at East Lawn. Hipolito said the nonprofit already has nine “abandoned babies” and anticipates a few more.