A LIFE TOO BRIEF

`Baby Callum' was killed at birth - probably by his mother. Yet, as Ann Treneman discovers, in all likelihood she was barely aware she did it
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THE BABY was found wrapped in a black plastic bin-bag at about 11 o'clock on a cold morning last March by a man out walking his dog. It was a boy, 7 pounds 8 ounces, and he was only hours old. He had come into the world on the night of Friday the 13th, or perhaps the early hours of Saturday. No one knows. We do know he was born without medical help because someone, probably his mother, cut the umbilical cord in a rather crude way. And we also know that, a very short time after the cord was cut, someone put something round his neck and strangled him. Then he was wrapped in plastic and dumped where he was sure to be found - near a footpath on the approach road to the Gulliver's World theme park on the outskirts of Warrington.

Who killed the bin-bag baby? That was the first question that confronted Detective Chief Inspector John Hester. Who was the mother? That was the second. The answers were considerably less easy to find. Twenty-five officers were put on the case. Thousands of interviews were conducted. Three hundred schoolgirls had their mouths swabbed for DNA testing. Everyone at Warrington police station had a crash course in the strange crime that is neonaticide. But when I ask DCI Hester the four-month-old questions, his first response is a long sigh: "The short answer is that I don't know."

THE COMMUNITY has given its heart to this dead boy. He was found in an area of Warrington known as Callands, and so was christened Baby Callum. The bakery department of the local Asda superstore raised pounds 880 for the funeral. Last Monday some 150 people came to the service conducted by no fewer than three ministers. The white coffin was tiny, the size perhaps of a breadbin, and was carried by just one man up the aisle of St Elphin's church. Many people had sent flowers, some with teddy bears attached. I couldn't help but wonder that this baby received more attention in death than his mother had in life.

About 20 newborns are killed every year in Britain. Many more are abandoned. It is an ancient practice, though we are still shocked every time it happens. Think of Moses and the basket in the rushes. There are convents both in Spain and in South America with baskets in the doors. When the bell rings, the nuns know they are to leave a few minutes before answering, so the mother can escape after she's left her newborn in the basket. Folklore and fairy tales are bursting with abandoned and murdered babies. But all of this seems too romantic, somehow, on a drizzly summer's day in Warrington.

Margaret Oates knows much more than most about who might have been Baby Callum's mother. Dr Oates is a perinatal psychiatrist at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham and, because she specialises in mental illness to do with childbirth, is one of the few people to have talked in depth to such women. Most of us only think of such things when someone like Caroline Beale hits the headlines. Beale was arrested at JFK Airport in 1994 with her dead newborn strapped to her body: she was charged with murder. After spending eight months in Ryker's Island, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and returned to Britain, where she received psychiatric help. She has now written a book.

In America there have been several other high-profile cases. The most shocking is the "prom murder" in which 18-year-old Melissa Drexler is awaiting trial having given birth in a toilet during the high-school prom. Prosecuters say she put the baby in a bin, went back to the prom where she requested a song from the DJ and ate a salad. Then there are high- school sweethearts Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, who killed their newborn son after his secret birth in a Delaware motel room. Now the two are crime celebrities and, after much public anguish about it all, have been sentenced to relatively short prison sentences.

But the women Dr Oates helps will never make the headlines or write books. They are ordinary in every way, except for two extraordinary facts: they have all successfully concealed a pregnancy and given birth without medical help. Dr Oates believes these women can be divided into three groups. The first are teenagers who do not fully acknowledge to anyone, even themselves, that they are pregnant. The second are older women who, because of the menopause, do not realise what is going on until they are well into labour. Then there are the seriously mentally ill, schizophrenics who do not believe the baby they are carrying is anything to do with them.

Where these three groups differ is after the birth. The older woman may be shocked but adjusts quickly to motherhood. The mentally ill receive treatment. But the fate of babies born to the young and frightened is less sure. Some will be killed, others abandoned. The lucky ones are left in police stations or hospitals where they are meant to be found, the unlucky perish before anyone finds the bundle.

The mother of Baby Callum is probably among the young and frightened. "The oldest one I've seen in that category was 17. The youngest is 12," says Dr Oates. "It's often said in the literature that they are mentally handicapped. In my experience, some of them have been quite bright. Nor are we talking about grossly socio- economically deprived backgrounds. I've seen girls from a whole range of social backgrounds. One went to a private school. Many have perfectly respectable backgrounds."

At first, these girls will not notice they are pregnant because their periods are irregular anyway. Many will have a steady boyfriend and parents who allow them to lead virtually private lives within the parental home. They live as they want, often in bedrooms furnished with televisions and the like. Gradually, as the pregnancy progresses, the girls may begin to realise the truth, only to decide that this is one thing they do not want to face. "All the girls I've seen have said that they have `half known' they were pregnant. But what they do is a typical child-adolescent thing: if you don't think about something, if you don't talk about it, it will go away," says Dr Oates. "One girl said to me: `I just put it out of my mind. I didn't want to think about it.' "

This state, called dissociation or splitting, can have incredible power over both mind and body. These girls are completely unaware that they will, at some point, give birth. Nor do their bodies behave in a pregnant way. One girl played netball four hours before the birth and went on a paper round at 7am the morning after. Another got up after the birth and drove her car around for hours. Another, whom I will call Kathy, did something even more extraordinary.

Kathy was a "sweet girl" with a three-year-old child whom she adored. She was divorced and, although she lived alone, was very dependent on her parents for baby-sitting and the like. Unknown to them, she was still having sex with her ex-husband. So when she got pregnant, she just put it out of her mind. Then, one Sunday, she put her little girl to bed at about 5pm and, an hour later, started to get a stomach-ache. At 2am she delivered a baby on to her bed. She later told Dr Oates that her only fear throughout the whole thing was that she would make a noise and wake up her three-year-old.

In the morning Kathy cleaned herself up and went on to what she called automatic pilot. She took her daughter to playschool and met her mother for a day of shopping. At 5pm she picked up her daughter and came home. She went into the bedroom and thought to herself: "Good Lord, there's a cat on the bed." She went over and found instead a baby. Suddenly, in that moment, reality hit her. She picked up the infant, blue with cold but still alive, and ran screaming down the road to the local hospital. Eventually she found her way to Dr Oates: "There was nothing wrong with that girl mentally. We went through the whole thing over a period of weeks with a fine-tooth comb. She was upset, obviously, but that doesn't constitute an illness. But what she describes is an extraordinary dissociative state with a capacity to continue behaving automatically. She did that for 24 hours until she was confronted with the event. Then she just came apart at the seams."

Most girls who live at home manage to go through labour, unassisted, in their bedrooms without crying out. Sometimes the parents are downstairs and do not hear a thing. The most common place for the birth is the bathroom and the mother will then go on to cut the cord with a variety of implements (Melissa Drexler is said to have used the serrated edge of the toilet- paper dispenser). Dr Oates says she has never managed to find out what happened to the placenta.

It is at this point that the boyfriend, if there is one, gets involved. The baby is most at risk now, and may be taken away. One girl drove for hours before leaving the baby in a police-station doorway. When she got back home, she rang in anonymously to make sure it was found. Twyana, a college student from Ohio, gave birth alone at the age of 21 in her dorm room. "I wrapped her up and put her in the trash," she says. Then she called security and watched to make sure someone came for her daughter.

Twyana's baby is named Danielle and lives with her and her grandparents. Often the babies do end up back with the mothers though some, like Kathy, choose adoption instead. Other babies never have a chance; their first cry is their last. Kate is a 21-year-old who got pregnant after a one- night stand with a man at the office. Her periods were always irregular and it was six months before she realised she was pregnant. She couldn't bear to tell her new boyfriend, so decided to put it out of her mind.

She was alone in her step-uncle's house when she went into labour. It took 17 hours and was a breech birth. She cut the cord with a kitchen knife and then went back up to the bedroom. Kate, who tells her story to a forthcoming QED documentary on concealed pregnancies, said: "All I really remember was the bedroom. It was horrific - there was blood all over the floor and all over the bedding." She became overwhelmed: "It was just her and me in the world. Nobody else was there."

Then, however, the baby cried. Kate, panicking that someone might hear her, put her hand over the baby's mouth and pinched her nose. Kate wrapped the body in a pillowcase and then in plastic bin-bags. She kept this in her room for weeks, only attempting to dispose of the bag when she had to move out. A neighbour saw her acting oddly with it and rang the police - and Kate was arrested and charged with murder. She spent six months in hospital; eventually, the charge was reduced to infanticide and she was sentenced to three years' probation.

Kate is now pregnant again and determined that this time it will be different. "People can say, `How can somebody who's been through that become a mother again?' But see me with my child in five or 10 years down the line and then judge." Twyana is also looking forward to receiving full custody of her daughter when she finishes her college course. She says that she will tell Danielle what happened because she has the right to know. Twyana has made a point of speaking out about her experience, talking to teenagers and parents about the desperate need for communication. "I could have easily been in jail now," she says. "That's how I look at it. But I'm not and so I think it's my job to get the message out."

Twyana concealed her pregnancy because she didn't want to let her grandparents down. She had moved in with them when she was 15, after years of living with a mother who was a drug addict and an alcoholic. "I felt like a lot of pressure was put on me. I'm the first one in my family in four generations to graduate from high school, let alone go to college," she says on the telephone from Columbus. What, I asked her, does she imagine the mother of Baby Callum was thinking on that cold night in March? "I'm not sure really. I don't know her upbringing or what kind of household she is in. But I know she has to be scared because I know I was. My main concern was that I didn't want to let anybody down. I guess, maybe, that she may have been thinking the same thing."

IN WARRINGTON, the police work continues. The latest is a plea for a young woman in a beige coat to come forward. She was seen in distress on 11 March in the Gulliver's World area. DCI Hester is adamant that no one can assume the mother herself is not also a victim. She may have been held against her will, he says, or had to watch as someone else killed her baby. Perhaps so. Someday, John Hester says, he will know for sure. "I have the evidence that will identify her. One day we will come across her. It might not be today or tomorrow or the next day but at some point we will come across her. There aren't many people who are going to go through the whole of their life with a secret like that and not exhibit some sort of behaviour which is going to mean they are going to come into contact with us."

Who is she? And does she know how much her son was loved in death, by a town that feels that it too has had a rough time of it? It is doubtful if she was at the funeral last Monday, with its crowds and flowers and tears. She might, however, one day visit his grave at Warrington cemetery. There, under an ancient beech, she would find his plot lying next to an identically tiny one. The headstone identifies this as the grave of "Joe Jordan, born sleeping, 13 November 1997". Last Monday Joe had a bouquet on his white gravel bed and a message too: "Now you have someone to play with, Love Mummy xxx."

`QED: Deadly Secrets' is on BBC1 this Wednesday at 9.30pm.

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