A bill to expand the ways mothers can surrender newborn infants by providing a “safe haven baby boxes” option achieved near unanimous support Tuesday in its first House panel.
That legislation (HB 133), filed by Republican Reps. Mike Beltran and Joe Harding, would add the option for surrender sites like hospitals, police departments and fire departments to install climatized and lighted drop boxes that are 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.
State law currently allows mothers to anonymously hand over newborn children seven days or younger to first responders.
The bill would also double the maximum age of a child that mothers may surrender to 30 days, a provision that garnered support from Tampa Democratic Rep. Susan Valdés. With her no vote, the House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee voted 16-1 to advance the bill.
Proponents of baby boxes say it would create a fully anonymous option for mothers of newborns to surrender unwanted infants they can’t care for.
Harding, of Williston, pointed to 58 instances of children recovered in Indiana, where the largest baby box organization, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, originated.
According to a legislative staff analysis, 386 newborns have been abandoned in Florida since 2000 when a state law about abandoning babies at fire stations or hospitals was first passed. Of that total, 324 were abandoned in such safe circumstances. Of the 62 infants not safely abandoned, 32 died.
“Fifty percent is good in sports and it makes you an All-Star, but 50% when it comes to life isn’t good enough,” Harding said.
Macclenny Republican Rep. Chuck Brannan, a retired law enforcement official, recalled driving in his patrol car one morning when he saw a newborn abandoned near the approach to the interstate. He wasn’t able to track down the baby’s mother because of HIPAA regulations, but he said he believes placing the baby in the triangle of an intersection was an attempt have someone spot the child.
“For those that might be worried about a baby box, that’s a lot better than in the middle of an interchange at the interstate,” Brannan said.
The House passed the bill last year on a 117-2 vote, but the Senate version stalled in the committee process at the hands of Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chair Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat. Valdés was one of two House votes against the bill’s final passage in 2020.
Of note, West Park Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones voted in favor of the bill as a House member last year but has voted against it twice this year in committees.
Unlike Ocala Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley‘s version (SB 122), which encountered turbulence and party-line votes in its two hearings so far, Beltran and Harding’s bill experienced mostly smooth sailing even after facing several questions.
School speakers could teach about baby boxes, members of the public told the committee. Valdés implored the panel to “get to the root of the problem,” instead of teaching about baby boxes in classrooms.
“Let’s talk about abstinence. Let’s talk about birth control. Let’s talk about holding folks accountable,” she said.
Lauderdale Lakes Democratic Rep. Patricia Williams told the panel she was able to vote yes because the bill left the choice to install baby boxes to local governments. The provision extending surrender to 30 days also garnered her support.
After a nearly hour-long discussion in the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee last week, Chairman Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, said the discussion underscored that there’s “work to be done.”
The House Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee meeting was the House bill’s first meeting. Harding appeared to anticipate opposition to his bill with an appeal to the panelists’ desire to care for children.
“Even in areas of disagreement, we unite behind that one thing, and I think that’s so critical,” Harding said.
Both bills are now in their final committee stop, with the House version next up for a hearing in the House Health and Human Services Committee.
The meeting was also Harding’s first time presenting a bill, and the freshman Representative challenged his colleagues to bring on the hazing.
However, debate on the sensitive topic remained serious until the very end when Committee Chairman Thad Altman helped send off the bill on a lighthearted note. The Indialantic Republican pranked Harding by saying the panel couldn’t vote on the bill because Beltran, the prime co-sponsor, was absent.
“There is another provision, rule point 7 point 4 5, special exemption for rookie mistakes, one time over,” Altman deadpanned. “We can overcome that.”