A bill allowing hospitals and other infant surrender sites to install “baby boxes” looks more viable than it did in 2020.
The Senate Health Policy Committee voted along party lines Wednesday to advance Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley‘s proposal (SB 122) to its second of three committee stops, nearly a year after it first approved the language. Last Session, it stalled in the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee, chaired by Democratic Sen. Lauren Book.
Book still chairs that committee, but Baxley’s bill will instead make its second stop in the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee despite there being no substantive changes from last year’s proposal. Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, who chairs the subcommittee, voted with the majority Wednesday on the 6-2 vote to advance the bill.
Baxley’s bill would add the option for surrender sites to use “safe haven baby boxes,” which are climatized, lighted and outfitted with interior cameras and sensors to alert first responders when an infant is placed inside. The slot on the building’s exterior locks, and first responders must open it from inside, removing personal contact with the surrendering parent.
The Ocala Republican and his proposal’s proponents say it would create a fully anonymous option for mothers of newborns to surrender unwanted infants or babies they can’t care for. They point to 60 instances of children recovered in Indiana, where the Safe Haven Baby Boxes company originated, and eight other states.
The bill would also double the maximum age of a child that mothers may surrender to 60 days.
Despite critics’ arguments that the bill solves a nonexistent problem while creating new ones, there is momentum on the ground for it. Shortly after Baxley refiled the bill, a new fire and police building in Ocala, the Senator’s hometown, unveiled Florida’s first baby box, according to the Ocala StarBanner, after getting approval from the Department of Health.
“It’s got legs walking, and it certainly, in my mind, deserves support,” Baxley told senators Wednesday.
In the House, Rep. Joe Harding, a freshman Republican member from Williston, filed an identical version of the legislation. His bill (HB 133) awaits its first of two hearings before it is ready for the House floor.
Book, who voted against the bill Wednesday, raised concerns about human traffickers using it as an anonymous way to force a mother to get rid of their baby. First responders also miss the opportunity to get vital medical history for the parents and child.
But Baxley said “saving a newborn’s life” takes precedent.
“To me, it’s quite simple. We’re talking about survival. We’re talking about a child, in American, in Florida, in a distressed situation,” Baxley responded. “Rescue is my primary concern, that life being able to live is the first emergency issue to be dealt with.”
He made an, at times, emotional plea for the Senate panel to pass the bill.
“Don’t kill a good idea because you think you might have a better one some day,” Baxley said.
“This isn’t excluding anyone else’s option,” he added.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes, the largest — if not only — baby box manufacturer, created the box in Ocala. The company claims more than 50 installations nationwide since 2016. The boxes cost about $15,000 each.
Book called Baxley’s proposal a “vendor-specific, vendor-driven bill,” which he denied. When Safe Haven Baby Boxes founder and CEO Monica Kelsey testified before the committee, she said Arizona has had “baby drawers” for 20 years and that other manufacturers exist.
North Miami lawyer Jerome Hurtak, who has also been a board member for the safe haven group Gloria M. Silverio Foundation for six years, argued the bill’s proposed changes are unnecessary and would create unintended consequences.
The foundation has consulted 5,000 women on what to do with their newborns. All either kept the child, placed the baby up for private adoption or used the current anonymous surrender law.
“In every situation where this baby box is used rather than direct surrender, we miss the opportunity to help a woman and to get a medical history from that woman for the future of this baby,” Hurtak said.
Discussion on the bill lasted more than an hour.
Republican Sen. Ileana Garcia acknowledged the bill wasn’t perfect before voting to progress it. In advance of the bill reaching his committee, Bean voiced his support.
“If we pass this bill and nothing is ever placed in the box, we’ve lost nothing,” Bean said. “But if just one life is saved because of what we do here today, we’ve gained everything.”