In Memoriam: A Boy Named John

By Jeffrey Page

By rights, the boy should have had a big chocolate cake and some candles to blow out. He should have gotten a shiny new bike, maybe a Whiffle ball set.

Some ancient uncle should have asked the usual goofy questions like “Are you looking forward to going to school?” because, had things been different, he would have been entering kindergarten in September.

That cake and party should have been held last month, five years after the child was born and five years after he was murdered.

With no name, no family and no history, he floated ashore in Middletown, N.J. on one of those brutal March days when the wind comes off Raritan Bay like a punishment. He was found by a man out for a walk at a place called Ideal Beach. The boy was naked. His umbilical cord was still attached even after about a week in the water.

There had been no reports of missing newborns.

A post mortem would reveal two skull fractures that could have been caused by his striking something in the water or, more likely, by some lunatic burdened with this inconvenient infant. An assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County said it was likely that the baby had been tossed into the bay alive.

The discovery of this boy came during an epidemic of infanticide in New Jersey. In 1997, a young woman gave birth at her prom, drowned the baby in the toilet, stopped for some salad at the snack table and went back to the dance. In 2000, a woman threw her 15-month old son into the Passaic River because she couldn’t find a babysitter. In 2005, a man beat his year-old son to death because the boy had played with the TV remote. And of course in 1996 the infamous young couple from Bergen County, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, went to prison in Delaware for killing the infant son she had just borne in a motel. There were others.

Each of the states, starting with Texas in 1999, has enacted a Safe Haven law that, with some variation in details, allow people to surrender unwanted infants at hospitals, fire houses and police stations. No questions asked unless the baby shows signs of physical abuse. Nebraska’s law was badly written, with no age requirements, and as a result some people dropped off their teenage sons and daughters – clearly not the idea behind Safe Haven. That law has been fixed.

Critics object to Safe Haven laws because they think it encourages parents to give up their children.

But in fact every legal surrender results in one infant not being left out in the cold, or being put out in the garbage, or getting dropped into the fearful waters of Raritan Bay. If anything, the law needs greater public awareness.

Tim Jaccard, the founder of the Long Island-based AMT Children of Hope Foundation and an outspoken supporter of Safe Haven laws, said that 220 babies have been legally abandoned in New York since 2000. During the same period 22 babies were improperly surrendered: Only eight of them were found alive. He estimated that 1,826 children have been legally surrendered nationwide since 1999.

In New Jersey, the Department of Children and Families reports that in the last eight years, 38 Safe Haven surrenders had been made. Of course, no one can say what would have happened to those children if there were no such law. But what really matters is that 38 kids are alive today. In the same span, another 28 children in New Jersey were involved in “unsafe surrenders,” which is sterilized bureaucratese for babies found dead or critically injured.

Some months after the little boy washed up at Ideal Beach, a funeral was held for him at St. Anne’s Cemetery in Wall Township. Attending were a gravedigger, a man from a funeral home, a priest, a reporter and a photographer. The cemetery donated a gravesite in a section reserved for babies and children. The undertaker provided a tiny casket and some white carnations and purple delphiniums.

The priest decided that the baby would be called John. Then, as the gravedigger lay down on the ground to lower the little casket into the earth, the priest prayed.

He prayed that John had deserved the dignity due all people; surely he knew John deserved such respect. He implored God to bless the grave and to take John into his presence. He referred to John as “our child” and asked God to grant John eternal happiness.

Now, five years later, John’s killer remains free.

Jeff can be reached at


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