ELLISVILLE • As dawn broke on a chilly February morning, Kaitlin T. Norton brought a baby boy into the world.
She was alone in a basement laundry room of her boyfriend's house and wasn't sure how to handle her deep, long-held secret, her lawyer says. Neither the child's father nor her family knew about the pregnancy.
In a panic, her lawyer says, she wrapped the infant in a blanket, ran outside and left him at the base of a pine tree down the block.
Two hours later, an Ellisville police officer was shocked to find a cold, squirming baby boy beneath the dirty, damp blanket.
On Tuesday, Norton, 19, who lives with family in the 700 block of Arbor Chase Drive in Wildwood, was charged with felony counts of child abandonment and child endangerment. Bail was set at $40,000.
Norton's lawyer, Andy Leonard, said Norton's body type and clothing choices apparently allowed her to hide her pregnancy from family and friends. That's the how, but the why is a tougher question.
"I don't begin to know why," Leonard said.
Leonard offered some explanation, however, saying Norton concealed the pregnancy "because of a combination of naive understanding of her body, a boyfriend who was away at college and insecurity over the relationships in her life."
Perhaps the biggest factor, Leonard said, was fear.
"She couldn't face the problem up through the moment that she delivered the child," he said. "She didn't know what to do."
'OH, MY GOD, IT'S A BABY'
After spotting a bundle in a blanket moving strangely outside her house at 120 Westridge Parc Lane on Feb. 16, Betty Crowder thought someone had dumped a litter of puppies. She called animal control and animal rescue groups, and eventually an Ellisville police officer was dispatched. He lifted the blanket.
He and Crowder were stunned by what they saw.
"We said, 'Oh, my God, it's a baby,'" Crowder recalled.
The boy was taken to Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Creve Coeur for treatment. The boy was cold but not seriously hurt.
Norton checked into a different hospital for postnatal treatment several hours later. Police questioned her there, and she turned herself in to the Ellisville police station Feb. 20, after her release from the hospital.
The child is in state care. It was not clear Tuesday if the father would seek custody of the boy, identified in court documents only as "Baby Norton."
Norton acted alone and is asking for forgiveness for her "bad decision," Leonard said. He said she placed the baby where she hoped he would be found.
"She is particularly sorry that she didn't ask for help from the families involved," Leonard said.
She is receiving counseling and will continue cooperating with authorities, Leonard said.
Norton graduated from Marquette High School last spring and worked as a receptionist at Salon Bella in Chesterfield.
FACTORS IN CHILD ABANDONMENT
While authorities track numbers for abuse and neglect, there is little reliable data on child abandonment cases.
Since 2005, 31 parents have taken advantage of Missouri's Safe Place for Newborns law that gives parents of babies younger than 1 immunity from prosecution if they leave children with emergency medical staff or at a hospital, firehouse or police department, according to Seth Bundy, a spokesman for the state's department of social services.
The law aims to give such parents a place to turn instead of exposing their child to possible harm. The law does not shield a parent or guardian from prosecution if the baby was hurt prior to relinquishing the child.
Melissa Jonson-Reid, a professor at Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, said common reasons for abandoning children include feeling unprepared for parenting and lacking knowledge of how or where to safely drop off unwanted children.
"What strikes me with this case is that she took some care not to do damage," said Jonson-Reid, who specializes in abuse and neglect. "She didn't put the baby in a garbage can. It appears she put the baby in a place where he was not likely to be harmed."
Elaine Roper, a social worker at Barnes-Jewish Hospital's teen pregnancy center, said parents abandon their children for several reasons including a lack of education, money, social support, shame and fear of being unable to care for a child.
"It's a complete life-changing situation, so sometimes teens feel a little bit overwhelmed where they find themselves in a situation where they don't want the baby," Roper said.
"It's important for us in the community to not speculate or to blame because you never know where someone's coming from or what life has handed them."