The plight of abandoned babies, some of whom have spent months in District hospitals, has elicited an outpouring of support from the community and the federal government, including the donation of a house that is being converted into a transitional home for some of the infants.
Abandoned at birth, most of the infants, known as boarder babies, are the children of drug-addicted mothers, usually women who are crack cocaine users. In the past, some of the babies have been in hospitals for six months or longer waiting to be adopted or placed in foster homes.
Howard University Hospital, which has the largest number of boarder babies in the city -- an average of 16 a week -- held a "Boarder Baby-Thon" on the campus radio station in March and raised pledges of more than $150,000 to refurbish a Northeast house that has been leased to the city for $1 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
More than half of the money is in hand, according to the university, and the home is expected to begin taking boarder babies by mid-September.
And this week, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. officially transferred one of its repossessed properties to the D.C. Boarder Baby Project, a nonprofit group that is renovating a Northwest house and hopes to open that facility in mid- to late fall.
Freddie Mac, a federally chartered agency that specializes in secondary mortgages, donated the house at 524 Irving St. NW as part of the agency's 20th anniversary observance. However, the property, appraised at $65,000, is in poor condition and Freddie Mac and the Boarder Baby group have been seeking additional donations and volunteers to help with renovations.
"The response from the community to the boarder baby problem has been fantastic," said Patty Gartenhaus, president of the Boarder Baby Project. "We've heard from hundreds of people, including those who have contributed money or who volunteer to come and work with the babies."
Gartenhaus said the group is working out of donated office space and has raised about $85,000, including $75,000 from a charity fashion show last March. More recently, she said, many people have called with offers to donate air conditioning, electrical work, home appliances and other renovation help.
The D.C. Department of Human Services reports that 36 boarder babies were at city hospitals as of July 14, including 10 infants who are not medically ready for release. D.C. hospitals cared for a total of 135 boarder babies last year.
A District law requires the city's child welfare system to classify the babies as neglected and to take physical custody of them if they have spent at least 10 days in the hospital after being declared ready to leave. The city has said that most boarder babies are now able to leave the hospital within a month.
But one baby at D.C. General is nearly 9 months old, according to Gartenhaus.
"They never get outside," she said of the babies. "They're in port-a-cribs, and they need a homelike environment."
Child experts warn that the first year of a child's life is crucial, and that children who spend much of that year in a hospital miss opportunities to bond and their development is likely to be delayed.
Jean Hunter, who heads the city's family services administration, said the agency has assigned one social worker to serve as the boarder baby contact person with the hospitals. Shortly, the city will solicit bids on a contract to provide staffing support for transitional housing for 30 babies.
The Boarder Baby Project wants to raise $273,000 to house and care for six babies at a time for three-month intervals -- a total of 24 babies a year. Gartenhaus said that amount is just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent by hospitals. Howard University's facility would house about eight babies for an average of six months.