Austin police say a newborn girl who spent the first hours of her life cold and alone in a dumpster at an apartment complex in Northeast Austin must have “had a guardian angel” watching over her when she was abandoned on a chilly morning in October.
Child abuse Detective Lee Knouse said a homeless man happened to be dumpster-diving in the perfect spot on Oct. 25 to hear the tiny child making small noises under the garbage.
At first, the man thought it might have been a puppy, Knouse said.
“That gentleman wasn’t looking for a baby in the dumpster,” Knouse said. “He didn’t hear a cry before he went into that dumpster. He just happened to be in there and heard it.”
Temperatures in the area that morning had dropped to 51 degrees, and by the time the man found the girl, she had turned blue and gray. Her pulse was weak, and medics who were sent to treat her had to perform chest compressions to keep her going.
The infant was rushed to Dell Children’s Medical Center, but she has since been released in good condition, police said.
The baby’s mother, 27-year-old Althea Johnson, was arrested Tuesday and faces a felony charge of abandoning a child. If convicted, Johnson faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Police, who provided new details about the case Wednesday, said they believe Johnson gave birth to her daughter in the bathroom of her apartment the same day she discarded her.
Knouse said the man who found the girl had to dig through several items in the dumpster to find her, and that her umbilical cord was still attached.
The affidavit said investigators spotted blood outside the dumpster, then along the sidewalk and at the doorway of a nearby apartment.
When officers went inside the apartment to investigate, they found more blood in the master bedroom, bathroom and around the toilet, along with cleaning supplies, according to an arrest affidavit filed against Johnson.
Officer Destiny Winston, a police spokeswoman, said that if officers hadn’t been called when they were, they probably would not have been able to save the child.
The affidavit said a Waste Management truck arrived to clear the dumpster as police were gathering evidence at the scene.
“The witness in this case was of the utmost importance. I really feel like the baby kind of had a guardian angel,” Knouse said.
The affidavit said Johnson admitted to authorities in a follow-up interview that the baby was hers and that she placed her in the dumpster. She told police she did so knowing the child was alive because she’d seen the baby open her eyes.
A Child Protective Services spokeswoman confirmed that the baby had been placed with family members after being released from the hospital.
Knouse said Johnson has other children, but would not go into specifics. They are also being cared for by family members, he said.
Texas has a safe haven law, also known as the “Baby Moses Law,” that allows parents to legally surrender their children at any hospital, emergency care facility, fire station or emergency medical services station with no questions asked.
The law requires parents to surrender children when they are 2 months old or younger, and that they leave them with an employee of the facility and say that they want to give up the child. Parents can be asked about family medical history as well.
Since 2004, 131 children have been surrendered under the law.
“We would have liked to have seen that happen in this case. We are very happy that the baby is safe at this time. But, of course, that didn’t happen initially,” Knouse said. “Keep in mind, if you don’t feel like you have options, there is an option in place.”
Knouse, who has worked in the Child Abuse Unit for more than a year and a half, said the incident highlights how important witnesses are to child abuse cases, even those not involving infants.
“The vast majority of cases, it’s not a little child coming up and saying, ‘Mr. Police Officer, I’ve been physically abused by somebody,’” he said. “Often it goes to a parent, it goes to a teacher, it goes to a pastor — it goes to somebody else. And (to) that person, it’s really your duty and responsibility to speak on the behalf of that child because the child doesn’t have a voice.”