A House committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would authorize hospitals and fire stations to install and use “baby boxes,” the equivalent of bank after-hours deposit portals for unwanted newborns.
The House Health Market Reform Subcommittee offered unanimous approval for HB 1217 after a national proponent insisted the baby drop-off devices are greatly reducing the risk to unwanted newborns who otherwise might be abandoned in unsafe places like trash cans.
It also came after a statewide proponent of Florida’s current newborn surrender law, which allows for confidential but not anonymous surrenders to the arms of firefighters or emergency medical workers, argued the current arrangements better assure attention for health concerns for both the babies and the mothers.
Under Florida’s “safe haven” law initiated in 2000, parents of unwanted newborns can safely relinquish them at hospitals, fire stations and emergency medical services stations. That law allows parents to confidentially surrender infants up to 7 days old. It grants the parents immunity from criminal prosecution unless there is actual or suspected child abuse or neglect.
But confidentiality and anonymity are not the same thing. And there still are instances of newborn babies being abandoned in unsafe places.
“For fairly obvious reasons, some folks are uncomfortable surrendering their babies face-to-face, so they may illegally abandon their babies in a place that is not safe,” HB 1217’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Beltran said.
The baby boxes described in HB 1217, or something like them, are in use in six states.
The boxes would be installed through an exterior wall, with a secure door on the outside leading to an incubator-style bassinet, which is accessible from the inside. A silent alarm goes off inside the fire station or hospital if someone opens the outside door. Emergency personnel can then check the bassinet without seeing who might be outside.
Beltran’s proposed baby boxes would be optional for fire departments or hospitals that would like to have one. The bill would not mandate or fund the boxes. A national nonprofit group, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, is both pushing for legislation like HB 1217, and raising and donating money for interested fire departments and hospitals to purchase and install the devices.
Pam Stenzel, a national board member for Safe Haven Baby Boxes, said incidents of illegal baby abandonments and deaths of abandoned babies have dropped in states that have authorized baby box use, notably Indiana, Ohio, and Arkansas.
She said Florida has seen 20 infants illegally abandoned in the past five years.
“When you research where newborns are being illegally abandoned in Florida, even with the safe haven law, you see where you can improve, and why women chose to illegally abandon their newborn instead of safely surrendering under the law,” Stenzel said.
“Some organizations like to pat themselves on the back for the safe surrenders, and they push the illegal abandonments under the rug. We don’t measure success in Indiana, Ohio, or Arkansas by how many babies are surrendered. We consider success by how many babies have not been abandoned in trashcans and Dumpsters,” she said.
Yet Lars White, a retired Oviedo Fire Chief who is an ambassador for the nonprofit A Safe Haven for Newborns, cautioned that when mothers abandon babies, there are health concerns for both of them. That organization is opposing HB 1217.
White said when babies are surrendered from the arms of mothers to the arms of emergency personnel, the personnel can provide immediate emergency care if she needs it or provide referrals for counseling or treatment. The emergency personnel also can get “very important health information” about the babies, he noted.
White said that in the cases of the 317 newborns who have been surrendered under Florida’s safe haven law, confidentiality has never been breached.
“The Florida infant surrender law is working well,” White said. “The statistics reflect a substantial decrease in illegal abandonments. … The lawfully surrendered infants have also increased.”
White also cautioned about the loss of anonymity for any mother who might be spotted out in the open surrendering a baby into a dropbox, especially in the era of social media. And he cautioned that the baby boxes require additional maintenance and other expenses.
That drew angry response from Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican.
“I’m actually offended by their testimony. Too often we see, in the news, a baby that has been discarded in the trash. I can’t imagine the mom or the dad that has to make that decision because they don’t feel comfortable handing off the baby. Your bill does not take away that option,” he said to Beltran of the face-to-face hand-offs. “But if we can save just one baby [with the more anonymous boxes] then it is worth it.”