Stephanie Gray keeps memories of her son, Noah, on a shelf in the family's Modesto apartment, complete with picture books, a plaque with little footprints and a candle that is often lit.
The only thing missing is a certificate acknowledging his birth. She and her husband, David, received only a death certificate after Noah was stillborn Sept. 21, 2002.
"We had dreams, hopes, everything for this baby, and in a blink of an eye, he was gone," Stephanie Gray said.
Under a new law, effective Jan. 1, parents of a stillborn can receive a type of birth certificate through a county office of vital records or the state Department of Vital Statistics.
California, which is calling the document a "Certificate of Still Birth," joined 20 other states that issue the documents to parents who request them. Formerly, any kind of birth certificate was denied these parents because the pregnancy did not result in a live birth.
In California, a fetus must be beyond 20 weeks of gestation for the parents to receive a certificate. The cost for that document is $20.
An estimated 26,000 stillbirths occur in the nation each year, with birth defects, infections or accidents with the umbilical cord among the most common causes. Often, all appears well within days of delivery.
Nurses couldn't hear heartbeat
Supporters of California's Missing Angels Act say the certificates are a tangible memento after a grieving mother. According to the Arizona-based Mothers in Sympathy and Support Foundation, which supported the laws in different states, the documents also are a genealogical record and help the parents to heal.
Gray, 25, said her first pregnancy was going well, then at six months she had episodes of premature labor pains. During each stay in the hospital, she was given drugs to stop labor and sent home, she said.
Everything appeared to be fine during a checkup three weeks before her due date. When she and David went to the hospital for the delivery two days later, however, nurses who put a monitor to her belly couldn't hear a heartbeat.
An ultrasound determined the boy had died.
"I just remember yelling and screaming; it was like an out-of-body experience," Stephanie Gray said. "It's like someone else stepped in, and I lost it."
Stephanie gave birth to the 5-pound, 14-ounce Noah at 12:40 a.m. and pulled herself together to spend precious time with him. For seven hours, the parents held Noah, caressed his brown hair, bathed him and dressed him.
Noah had his father's hair and chin dimple, and long fingers for playing the violin like his mother. Stephanie snipped a lock of his hair and took his footprints as keepsakes.
The cause of death was never known, although their doctor said the placenta was small and might have stopped providing oxygen.
When the funeral home gave the parents a death certificate, Stephanie said, her first thought was about getting a birth certificate. She called the hospital and was told she didn't qualify for one, she said.
In 2002, a state bill to officially acknowledge stillbirths failed to pass, because of fears it could weaken abortion rights and foul up the state's birth records.
Senate Bill 850, sponsored last year by state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, was amended to alleviate the concerns. The stillbirth certificates will be issued only to parents who ask for them and they are not counted as live births.
Parents need to request a form
Gray said she wrote letters to Gov. Schwarzenegger and state legislators, urging them to approve the California law. She said her desire for a certificate is part of dealing with the worst crisis of her life.
She didn't want to eat, see people or look at young children, she said. She went on to have two boys, Cameren, 4, and Jayden Noah, 2.
The parents said the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder's office in downtown Mo- desto wasn't aware of the new certificates when David inquired early this month. Stephanie was able to get assistance from the Department of Public Health office at 820 Scenic Drive, which also handles birth records.
Dr. John Walker, county public health officer, said the health department will issue a Certificate of Still Birth for local parents who who had a stillbirth after Jan. 1.
Parents need to submit a request to the state Department of Vital Statistics for stillbirths before that date. Stanislaus County public health can give parents the request form, which must be completed and mailed to the state office, or parents can call the state vital statistics office in Sacramento. Certificates will be issued even if the stillbirth occurred many years ago, the law says.
Stanislaus County had 51 stillbirths in 2007 and 50 in 2006. As of Tuesday, three people had requested the new certificates, officials said.
Stephanie Gray said she was told it'll take 12 weeks to get the two certificates she ordered, one for framing, the other for Noah's baby book. On holidays and his birthday, the family has celebrated Noah by going to Monterey or taking a boat ride under the Golden Gate Bridge to throw flowers on the water.
"I am not in so much pain as before," Stephanie said. "I think of him but don't hurt as bad as I did."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.