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Saturday, Feb 09 2013 10:24 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Young mother didn't want her baby -- but somebody did

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    David Butler lifts up the little girl who was left at a Bakersfield fire station in 2012 on University Avenue and Mt. Vernon Avenue.

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  2. 2 of 2

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Bakersfield firefighters Mike Johnson, seated, and Dennis Roe received a baby at their fire station in 2012. They met with the baby Wednesday and her new family for a reunion at the station.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

A full moon lit the sky over Bakersfield one night last April when a young caucasian woman, perhaps 20, picked up the phone just outside the front door of City Fire Station 8.

She was carrying a newborn baby girl. A newborn she intended to leave at the firehouse.

The crew was gone, out on a call, but the phone automatically connected the woman to a Bakersfield Fire Department dispatcher. The dispatcher immediately called Hall Ambulance to report a soon-to-be-abandoned baby, as procedure requires. Then she called the firefighters on duty.

Capt. Mike Johnson, Firefighter Dennis Roe and the rest of the Station 8 crew were wrapping things up on a "difficulty breathing" call-out when, at 8:05 p.m., the radio buzzed. Get back to the station. A baby is waiting for you.

Their fire engine has a top speed of 64 mph. They went 64 mph.

When they pulled into Station 8, at the corner of University and Mount Vernon avenues, across from Memorial Stadium, the young woman was standing out in front talking to a Hall paramedic. Roe and Johnson scrambled out to meet her.

The woman, who identified herself as the baby's aunt, was nervous and hurried, but she knew what she was doing: She was taking advantage of the California Safe Haven Law, better known as Safely Surrendered.

The law allows a parent -- anyone, actually -- to leave a baby born within the previous 72 hours at any California hospital or firehouse, anonymously and without penalty. The firefighters' secondary duties -- right after taking safe possession of the child -- was to encourage the surrendering party to fill out a medical information form that might help the infant as she grew, and to accept a plastic numbered wrist tag that, when paired with the baby's matching band, would allow her to reclaim the child if she changed her mind within 14 days.

But the young aunt wasn't interested in any of it. She climbed into the passenger seat of a waiting car -- another young woman was in the backseat and a young man was behind the wheel -- and she was gone.

"We can't stop her," Roe said. "That's what the law says, and word of mouth is a powerful thing. We can't have her going back and saying 'It's not safe after all. You're harassed by the firefighters.' All we want to do is make sure the baby is safe. Give them a tag and if they change their mind it's no harm, no foul."

The baby was taken to Kern Medical Center, where doctors gave her the once-over. Mary Jane Doe, as she was now officially known, was pronounced healthy -- but, with the county's Child Protective Services office now her legal guardian, she would be staying in the KMC neonatal unit longer than the average newborn.

Seven days later, Howie Acosta, a private-practice therapist, was in a meeting when he got a phone call from Carrie Ontiveros, who works for Aspiranet, a foster care/adoptive agency that contracts with the county.

She knew Acosta and his partner had been looking to adopt. She knew they'd had their hearts broken once before after going through a more traditional path to adoption.

"We may have a baby for you," she told Acosta.

He immediately texted his partner, David Butler, an HMO administrator who was just wrapping up a meeting. Ontiveros agreed to meet them at KMC at 4 p.m. They convened in the parking lot and went upstairs together.

Little Mary Jane Doe was wrapped up so snugly the prospective parents couldn't see her well. They were shown a photo, but the baby's face was so swollen they couldn't quite make out her features.

"I thought maybe she had a cleft palate or something," Butler said. "I said something about it and I could hear the social worker flipping through her papers, saying, 'I don't know! I don't remember that!' I said, 'No worries, that's not a deal breaker.'"

Not after what they'd been through already, it wasn't.

Acosta and Butler first applied to be adoptive parents three years ago. They might as well have applied to become CIA operatives. The county's adoption agency subjected them to mental health interviews, background checks and home safety evaluations.

"We did as much as we could, as much as we thought we needed to do, but we had no idea," Acosta said. "Fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors. Every single medication with a poison label on it had to be in a lockbox. All prescription medication too. Every unused plug had to be capped. It's a big relief, now, actually, to have done all that. But at the time ..."

They were eventually approved and matched with a baby who would have been headed to foster care. They finally took him home on Nov. 21, 2011, knowing there was no chance the mother would be given the opportunity to reclaim the baby because she'd already had six other children -- and this was the seventh -- removed from her care.

They named the boy Harrison.

But the birth father's estranged family soon learned of Harrison's existence, and the baby's uncle applied for reunification. A week shy of their fifth month with Harrison, Acosta and Butler had to give him up.

"We had him long enough to bond, long enough to fall in love," Acosta said. "We were really a couple of wrecks. We decided we didn't want to go through that again. That's why we wanted the Safe Surrender program."

Because their house was already baby-proofed and they were essentially pre-approved as adoptive parents, the call came sooner than they expected.

"Harrison was a loss for them," Ontiveros said, "but it opened the door for Addie to come along."

That afternoon at KMC, the nurses asked if they had a name in mind. "Madison," Acosta suggested, and they all liked it. But heading back down in the elevator they decided that name was too common. By the time they touched down on the ground floor, Mary Jane/Madison had morphed into Addison Krista Acosta-Butler -- Addie for short.

The dads already owned most every piece of baby furniture they might need.

The 14-day waiting period came and went -- without the matching numbered band, the birth mother would have had a tough time making a case for reunification anyway -- and the new parents' blood pressure eased up a bit.

They formally adopted Addie on Nov. 16, 2012 -- National Adoption Day.

They don't know much about their daughter, but they can speculate with some confidence that she is bi-racial.

They know she doesn't have fetal alcohol syndrome and any other condition that the requisite screening could have easily ascertained -- and that's good for more than the obvious reasons.

"Because Addie was going to a home with two daddies, we wanted to minimize her other challenges," Acosta said. "Reduce any other types of discrimination she might endure."

To date, the somewhat nontraditional Acosta-Butler family has endured precisely zero negativity.

One day last year Acosta and Butler took Addie to Station 8, hoping to meet the firefighters who'd taken in their little girl. "Oh yeah, that was Shift C," they were told. "We're Shift A." They were told to come back.

That day was Feb. 6, the first full week of Safely Surrendered Month, an annual observance. Roe and Johnson, who now work at other fire stations, showed up in uniform.

Addie, now 9 months old, was dressed up for the reunion, with a black jumper, white stockings and a red, pink and white bow clipped into her soft, wavy black hair. She followed every movement of the two firefighters with her big, dark, round eyes, at one point returning their wave with a shy, tentative wave of her own.

When Johnson went into the next room with the two dads to impart details about that night in April that the press wouldn't be privy to, the room got quiet.

But only for a moment. Addison, propped comfortably in her grandmother's arms, had something to say: a sweet, conversational garble that surely referenced the happy commotion she'd been delivered into this day. "We think it's Russian," her grandmother, Kathy Butler, said of Addie's announcement. "But we're not completely sure."

The firefighters were gratified to see that their work that moonlit April night ended happily.

"Those kinds of calls have a big effect," Johnson said. "The department as a whole is able to have a positive effect on these babies' lives. We see a lot other things -- SIDS, kids falling into pools -- that don't end up so well. So it's great to see a positive outcome here, with two caring parents and a happy baby. It's the way we hoped things would work out."

From this point, Addie's two dads hope things are as ordinary and unexciting as possible.

"My hope for her, growing up, is that she knows love in its deepest form and she passes it on," Acosta said.

"My hope is that she comes to know the Lord," Butler said. "And that she goes to college."

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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