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Should Florida make 'baby boxes' legal?

Posted at 12:10 AM, Mar 17, 2021

FLORIDA — According to the group, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, at least 17 babies in Florida, were "illegally abandoned," from 2017 to 2021.

And the group says there could be more.

It's a trend that many across our state want to see a drop, but there's heated debate over how that should be done.

They're people like State Senator Dennis Baxley.

"These women are often in very distressful situations," he said.

He tells FOX 4 that the fight to reduce infant abandonment in our state is personal.

"My wife Jeanette and I are adoptive parents of infants in distress that have grown up," he said.

In an effort to help, he's been pushing to pass a bill that would expand our state's current "baby surrender" laws and allow for fire stations, hospitals, and EMS stations to build "baby boxes," where babies up to 30 days old could be left anonymously. No questions asked.

Right now, by law, a mother would have to physically walk their baby inside to avoid being charged with abandonment.

"It allows them to make sure their child survives to have a life and another home," Baxley said.

According to Safe Haven Baby Boxes, at least 60 of these kinds of boxes are already being used across the country, including in Ocala, FL.

They are armed with alarms that go off as soon as the baby is inside and they come with locked doors, temperature controls, and surveillance cameras.

Safe Haven Baby Boxes also says ever since the first one was installed in Indiana in 2016, they haven't had an abandoned baby die.

But some don't agree with this initiative.

"The biggest thing we lose is that outreach potential," said Joel Gordon.

They're folks like Gordon, who is the Deputy Fire Chief of the Plantation, Florida Fire Department. He's also a spokesperson for a group called A Safe Haven For Newborns.

Gordon and *that group say Baxley's proposed bill would cause harm because it removes human interaction from the surrender process.

"If they're physically harmed if they don't look well if the baby doesn't look well. At the very, very least, we get to know is there anything wrong with the baby, is the baby sick?" said Gordon.

They're also concerned that the boxes could fail or that someone could use them for a crime.

"If we have a baby that's been kidnapped or abused. And now the kidnapper just wants to unload the evidence, just simply drop it in the box and walk away," he said.

But Baxley tells FOX 4, the boxes would have cameras to help catch that kind of person. And he adds that the bill makes it clear that the boxes would have to be monitored and fixed regularly.

"I mean we always get some hypotheticals that haven't happened in the real world," he said.

If passed, this bill would go into effect on July 1, 2021.

FOX 4 also reached out to Lee Health to learn more about how they handle surrendered infants.

We spoke to Sangeeta Pingale, MSW, CMC (Social Work), who works in the Care Management Department at Golisano Children's Hospital.

FOX 4: Can you speak to the process of leaving a child with a healthcare worker at Lee Health? If someone was at that point and felt that they needed to leave their child there, what is the process?

Pingale: Lee health has a specific policy related to abandoned newborn infants under Florida statute Ch. 383.50. When a parent brings a newborn infant (this is defined as 7 days of age or younger) with the intent to not return, they have the absolute right to remain anonymous and leave at any time without being pursued, unless there is actual or suspected child abuse or neglect. Upon admission, the medical social worker is contacted who will then make arrangements with a licensed child-placing agency. The agency will then petition the court to take physical custody of the infant. They will also identify a potential adoptive family for the infant. In cases of suspected abuse or neglect, the social worker will call in a hotline report to the department of children and families. Once an infant is received, lee health employees may not return the infant to the parent. Risk management needs to be contacted for further assistance.

If a parent changes their mind, they may claim the infant up until the court enters a judgment terminating their parental rights. This claim will need to be made to the agency having legal custody of the surrendered infant.

FOX 4: What happens to babies left at a Lee Health hospital? Where do they go after (I'm assuming) being initially checked in to nursery?

Pingale: These infants are admitted to the hospital, examined by physicians, and stay in the hospital until the court petition process is completed by the agency and the infant is medically cleared for discharge.

FOX 4: Would a "baby box/incubator" be something that would help in a situation like this? Other states have adopted them to help provide more anonymity for those looking to leave a baby, but I also know people have mixed feelings about this. I'm just wondering if this would be a good fit for Lee Health.

Pingale: Over the years, we have had several infants who have been surrendered in our emergency departments. The current law and process have worked very well for the infants and their parents who, at the time of surrender, are making a very difficult decision. We have been able to maintain their anonymity, at the same time care for the infant and provide a safe and better future for the infant. Our policy is very specific and clear regarding the maintenance of anonymity of the parent. Placing a “box/incubator” raises many concerns for the surrendered infant’s physical safety. Close surveillance/monitoring of the boxes may also deter some families from leaving their infants in the box for fear of repercussions as they can be identified and they would leave an electronic footprint to enable tracking.