Batt. Chief's hunger pangs saved baby left at firehouse

Battalion Chief Shawn Watkins wanted a midnight snack and when he went for cereal at the station, he heard a high-pitched scream outside the door

The Sacramento Bee

ROCKLIN, Calif. — Just after midnight Tuesday, Rocklin Fire Battalion Chief Shawn Watkins wanted some cereal.

He walked from his room to the kitchen, located in the center of Station 24 on Crest Drive. Moments later, he heard a high-pitched scream outside the French double doors.

“I look out the door, I see a plastic box,” Watkins said. “A little hand popped up and (the baby) started crying.”

Someone had left a baby boy, umbilical cord still attached, behind the station in an area obscured by a large electric generator and far from firefighters’ sleeping quarters. Watkins’ late-night craving saved the child from a night in 40-degree temperatures, shielded only by the two yellow towels someone had wrapped around him. The boy likely will be placed for adoption.

Police said they are investigating the incident, a first in Rocklin, according to city officials. The parents, who could have legally surrendered the child at sites approved by the state’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law, might face criminal charges. Rocklin does not have a safe surrender site, but might seek a designation for the fire station in the wake of what happened, said city spokeswoman Karen Garner.

During an interview Wednesday, Watkins, 42, a 15-year department veteran, recounted the experience of finding the boy as one that “freaked me out, to be honest.”

“It was completely out of the norm,” he said.

Yet Watkins was able to react quickly. He alerted his fire captain, and both went outside. Watkins grabbed the container and they rushed the baby back indoors. The newborn, who had a dash of brown hair and sparkling brown eyes, had been thoroughly bathed, Watkins said.

The two firemen immediately clamped the umbilical chord to prevent bleeding and called for an ambulance.

The baby was crying. And the men, still absorbing the shock, initially struggled with what to do.

“I was still in awe,” said Watkins, a father of two girls, 8 and 10. But during the 20-minute wait, his parental instincts kicked in.

“We swaddled the baby, and it quit crying,” Watkins said. “There was a sigh of relief.”

The boy was taken to Sutter Roseville Medical Center, where he was found to be healthy.

Luck and chance played out in the newborn’s favor, Watkins believes.

“If we didn’t find it that night, there’s no doubt the whole scenario would have been different in the morning,” Watkins said. “The baby would have been chilled or deceased in the morning.”

The state’s surrender law, implemented in 2001, was designed to help prevent such outcomes. It allows parents to legally surrender their baby within 72 hours of birth to a staff member at a safe surrender site, which includes all hospitals and some fire stations. Local sites are determined by county governments.

“The law requires an exchange from one individual to another,” said Michael Weston, a spokesman with the California Department of Social Services. “You don’t have to give any information, but the baby has to be physically handed over.”

Parents are asked to voluntarily provide family health history and receive a bracelet that can be used to reclaim the baby within 14 days.

Since the law’s inception, more than 600 babies have been safely surrendered across the state, including 49 in Sacramento County, five in Yolo County, five in El Dorado County and one in Placer County.

“The law is there to give people options,” Weston said, adding that parents may choose to drop off their newborn because of financial or family issues.

In the Rocklin case, Weston said the parents could be criminally liable because the law wasn’t followed.

Capt. Lon Milka of the Rocklin Police Department said authorities don’t know who dropped off the baby. There was no surveillance video, he said.

For Watkins, the episode has offered a time for reflection.

“I don’t particularly graze at night,” he said. “For whatever reason, I went to eat. It was just meant to happen.”

Copyright 2014 The Sacramento Bee
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