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    Campaign's goal: Save babies' lives

    By J. NEALY-BROWN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


    If fear tricked teenage mothers into stuffing their newborns in a plastic bags, perhaps a little publicity about a potentially lifesaving law would have changed their minds.

    Four babies have been found discarded this year, in a trash bin, a canal, a ditch and a back yard. Some of the mothers face criminal charges in the deaths.

    If they had taken the babies to a safe place, such as a hospital or fire station, the mothers could have avoided legal troubles and remained anonymous.

    "They haven't gotten the message. They don't know about it," said state Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, who helped sponsor a law enacted last year that gives parents immunity from criminal prosecution for abandoning babies.

    "Even as much press as the bill got, we still needed to educate," she said. "The (state) Department of Health had some money set aside for marketing, but it just wasn't done."

    Murman is working to get $100,000 set aside to publicize the law and has gotten commitments from cable television and billboard companies to chip in $5 for every $1 the state spends.

    Clearwater-based Eller Media has agreed to put up billboards around the Tampa Bay area.

    Residents will see messages such as "Don't abandon your baby" and then the phone number for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay Inc., a referral agency. The number is (813) 234-1234. The messages could debut as early as next month, said Cragin Mosteller, director of marketing and special events at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

    Both the Crisis Center, in Hillsborough, and Pinellas Cares Inc., (727) 344-5555, now take calls from expecting parents who want to abandon their babies safely.

    Beginning in June, "A girl trying to drop off her baby can pick up the phone and dial 211," said Micki Thompson, program manager at Pinellas Cares. The three-digit phone number will be available to Pinellas and Hillsborough residents needing social services, including how to get their babies to a safe place.

    "It's easier to remember," she said.

    The publicity has helped save eight babies in New York, said Tim Jaccard, founder of the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, a non-profit organization created to prevent infant abandonment.

    "You've got to hit the schools," he said, adding that the law could be publicized through walk-a-thons, golf outings, picnics, bingo games and ads on the sides of semitrailer trucks. He recommends using a telephone number that is solely for those seeking a secret safe haven.

    Sandy Oestreich, president of the Pinellas chapter of the National Organization for Women, said information about the message also should be posted in libraries, apartment complexes and self-service laundries.

    "It should be everywhere a woman reads," said Oestreich, adding that other pregnancy issues -- contraception and abortion -- must be addressed as well.

    It's unclear how many babies are abandoned in the United States each year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 105 abandoned infants in 1998, the most recent year for which figures are available.

    Jaccard said there were 158 newborns reported deserted in 2000. So far this year, there have been 30 babies abandoned, he said.

    In Florida this year, four infants have been thrown away. On Wednesday, the body of a baby girl was found in a trash bin on Key Biscayne. She was the second newborn thrown away in South Florida in a month.

    It was a similar rash of abandonments that prompted lawmakers to push for the law last year.

    Because officials presume that parents are giving up their rights to the child, the law allows the state to initiate legal proceedings to establish care for the child. However, a mother or father could reclaim a child within 30 days of abandoning them.

    Although parents can remain anonymous, child care agencies must search for the parents within seven days of accepting custody of the baby.

    The law also calls for state officials to develop a media campaign to promote safe placement alternatives.

    Several states, including New York and Texas, have similar measures designed to keep babies safe.

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

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