Covington woman embraces abandoned, deceased babies

Nobody wanted them, or maybe that’s what the people who conceived them thought.

How else to explain the heedless way they were discarded – in a sewer, a plastic bag or a dumpster?

Margaret Freeman collects the tiny corpses and, with the help of others, finds them a patch of ground and maybe a grave stone.

Last month, a young couple in south DeKalb County, left their hours-old boy in a storm drain. They told police what they’d done, and officers found him. But it was too late: he died at the hospital.

“This is the kind of stuff that you could never imagine happening,” Freeman said. “But it has happened.” A self-appointed mother of the dead, the Covington retiree said she “adopted” the child afterward and gave him a name – Angel Baby Harrison. The DeKalb Medical Examiner’s Office said the baby’s mother signed an affidavit authorizing Freeman and her shoestring organization, the Hannah Angel Center, to handle the funeral arrangements.

The birth mother, 18-year-old Sinaed A. Harrison, and her boyfriend, Landis Bernard Stewart-Moore, 19, were charged with cruelty to children, a felony. Harrison bonded out of jail, but Stewart-Moore is still there, held on the cruelty charge and unrelated charges from 2008, including kidnapping, aggravated assault and armed robbery.

Harrison was not among the two dozen people who assembled under a gray sky Saturday morning to witness the funeral.

During the 45-minute ceremony at Hillandale Memorial Gardens in Lithonia, speaker after speaker tried to find some meaning in his death. “We’ve got to send a message to the world that no more will these children be left alone,” said Rev. Luke B. Boswell, Jr. of The Rock Christian Church in Conyers.

Then, just before noon, a worker lowered Angel Baby’s white porcelain casket into the ground.

Funeral home Gregory B. Levett & Sons volunteered its services, and cemetery owner Kelley Link said he discounted the five-foot by three-foot plot. The state could have paid the expense of a pauper’s funeral, but Freeman said these babies deserve something less anonymous and more dignified. Like she has several times before, Link said, Freeman will raise money to help pay for the site. And maybe she’ll find enough extra to buy a memorial stone.

“Nobody in the family would step forward and she’s basically helped get a proper and decent funeral for the child,” Link said. Freeman, 59, has brought him several abandoned babies, he said. “I think she more or less spiritually adopts them.”

It started for Freeman in 1996, with the news that a baby girl had been found in a trash bag in an Atlanta field. Freeman’s niece heard the story and urged her family to raise money for a funeral. In 2001, Freeman learned of another death. This time, a newborn girl was found in a dumpster that had been set afire in a south DeKalb shopping center. Freeman, by then retired from a Bellsouth marketing job, felt compelled to get more involved. An unwed mother in college, she knows the desperation of that circumstance. She is married now and has two grown children.

She helped organize the funeral for the girl, whom she called Hannah Angel. She would use that name the next year when she established her non-profit. Her mission: coach pregnant young women, and prepare them to either raise their children or give them away for adoption.

Freeman thought the grisly days were behind her when Georgia lawmakers got involved in 2002. Back then, it was illegal to abandon a newborn in any circumstance, but legislators relaxed the rules after an unwanted infant was left to die in a Savannah trash bin. Fewer babies would die, the thinking went, if society gave unwilling parents a way out. The legislature made it legal to leave an unwanted newborn aged seven days or less in the arms of a hospital worker.

Yet there have been several fatal abandonments since then. Freeman said she hasn’t talked to the mothers — she figures they learn about her from her Web site or the authorities — and she wonders what drove them. She likes to think it was fear or an abusive boyfriend rather than cruelty. She believes they didn’t realize the law offered their newborns a safe haven.

A couple months after the governor signed that law, twins boys were left in a women’s restroom at DeKalb Medical Center. One wasn’t breathing when they were found, and Freeman said she buried him. But his brother survived, and she said he was adopted. Two years ago, she got to meet him. And he was thriving.

“My goal is to put parents who are unwanting with the parents that are desperately, desperately wanting a newborn,” Freeman said. “My goal is not to bury babies.”