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Bill proposes safe places for abandoned babies

legislature 2000
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By SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The day after prosecutors charged a 13-year-old mother with attempted murder for abandoning her baby in a Kissimmee trash compactor, state legislative leaders said they will pass a law aimed at preventing a similar tragedy.

The law would allow a woman to leave her baby at a hospital or fire station and walk away, without fear of criminal prosecution. Supporters hope desperate mothers will choose such alternatives, rather than leaving their infants in trash bins to die.

"We are going to find a safe haven for those children, and we are going to save every baby," said Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, at a Thursday news conference.

With Jennings and House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, behind it, the measure likely will pass the Legislature this spring. It has two sponsors, both Republicans from Tampa: Sen. John Grant and Rep. Sandra L. "Sandy" Murman.

The abandoned Kissimmee baby, a 4-pound, 13-ounce girl named Rose, was found by a passer-by Feb. 27 and is now in a foster home. The baby's mother told detectives she was frightened and worried about how her own mother would react to her pregnancy.

But it was another abandoned newborn discovered Feb. 24 in Tampa who spurred Grant and Murman to act.

Baby Benjamin, named by nurses, was found in a black garbage bag next to a trash bin at the Carlton Arms apartments near Egypt Lake. He had been alive for two hours; doctors said another half-hour in the morning cold could have killed him.

The boy remains in foster care, according to Tom Jones, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families. The mother has not been found.

Baby Benjamin and Baby Rose were among six abandoned newborns found in Florida in the past month. Nationwide, 105 babies have been left in public places since 1998, according to a federal study cited in U.S. News & World Report. Of them, 33 were dead or died after being discovered.

Grant and Murman's proposal would require hospitals to accept abandoned newborns from their parents, who don't have to give their names. The law would consider a "newborn" to be 3 days old or younger.

Hospitals would set up hot-lines to local adoption agencies to place the infant as quickly as possible. The Department of Children and Families would be required to launch a media campaign to make women aware of the new law.

Texas passed a similar but weaker law last year that does not automatically protect the mothers from prosecution. More than a dozen other states are considering similar measures.

Under state law, the Kissimmee mother facing criminal charges cannot be prosecuted as an adult. If found guilty in juvenile court, she could be held until her 21st birthday.

It's more likely she would be placed on community control or incarcerated for up to 18 months, with probation to follow, prosecutors said.

Attorneys for the Department of Children and Families have told a judge they will try to remove Baby Rose permanently from the mother's custody.

Officials have not yet begun the 30-day process of severing the missing parents' rights to Baby Benjamin. Once that occurs, he will be turned over to a private adoption agency, said Jones, the Children and Families spokesman.

After news reports about Baby Benjamin, five adoption agencies called to say they had families eager to take the boy, Jones said.

At the news conference Thursday, Grant introduced his wife Beverley, who volunteers at A Woman's Place, a Christian crisis pregnancy center in Tampa. Grant opposes abortion but said his measure transcends that debate.

"This bill isn't pro-life. It isn't pro-choice. It's pro-baby."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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