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Issues - Protecting Children from state - Abandoned babies

A saving grace for babies
June 28, 2004, 9:22AM

Officials hope more mothers will find answer in safe-abandonment law
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

The tiny baby they call Emily napped peacefully in the arms of the only mother she's ever known. She was, after all, one of the lucky ones.
Just 16 days earlier, the newborn had been abandoned. But her birth mother at least had taken advantage of a law that encouraged her to leave the child in safe hands -- in this case, in a hospital emergency room. It was only a few years ago when other Houston-area babies weren't so fortunate, and the woman who now hopes to adopt Emily still agonizes over the memory.
"I can recall being devastated by the news of another baby found dead or in a Dumpster or in some field," said the woman, who asked to use only her first name, Trisha, to avoid unwanted publicity. "I would have easily taken any one of those children."
In 1999, Texas passed the nation's first Baby Moses Law, offering parents immunity from prosecution if they leave their newborns in hospitals or fire stations with medical technicians. The law took effect in September of that year. But while 10 Houston-area babies have been abandoned in safe places since the law was enacted, at least 12 others haven't been, and three of them died. The problem, officials say, is that too many desperate mothers still don't know about the law.

What's more, some officials fear that the policy of Child Protective Services to look for the mother after she's legally abandoned the baby could be keeping people from using the law.
CPS officials say they are obligated to look for the parents because judges here require due diligence in trying to find them before severing their parental rights. But others, including state Rep. Geanie Morrison, the law's author, say the mothers want anonymity, or they would have found another alternative.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, honorary chair of the Baby Moses Foundation in Texas, said that in the next legislative session, he plans to secure funding to publicize the law and seek additional support in communities to help get out the word. He knows funds are tight, he said, "but this project, in my judgment, is so important. It clearly saves lives."
Dewhurst also said he would like to tighten the law to protect the anonymity of parents who use it.
"I think CPS is good-hearted, and they simply are trying to follow what they believe is the law," said Dewhurst. "But if we have to tweak the law in the next session, we will."
Reliable statistics on the number of infants abandoned under the Baby Moses Law are elusive. Morrison, R-Victoria, said that based on news stories and calls from CPS workers, she knows of at least 19 babies statewide who have been legally abandoned since 1999. CPS does not keep official records.
But in the Houston area, anecdotal information kept by Harris County CPS shows that of the 22 abandonments since the law's passage, 10 were somewhere in or near a hospital or fire station, even though not all of the children were actually handed over to people.
One fact is certain, however. Fewer abandoned babies are being found in the area. Two infants were abandoned each year in 2003 and 2004, and all were found safe. Five years earlier, the statistics were far bleaker. Between December 1998 and mid-September 1999, 13 babies were abandoned in the Houston area, including two found dead in garbage bins and one found dead in a field.
The motivating force behind the Baby Moses Law was Dr. John M. Richardson, a Fort Worth pediatrician. He had read an article suggesting such an idea and found a legislator to champion the cause. But he said it's apparent that more needs to be done to inform people the law exists.
"I was very naive in thinking all I needed to do was to get this law passed and then everything would take off," he said.
Under the Baby Moses Law, the parent may remain anonymous when dropping off a newborn up to 60 days old at a hospital, a fire station or certain child-placement facilities licensed by the state. Also, emergency personnel are under no obligation to detain or pursue the parent unless the child appears to have been abused or neglected.
The mother who legally abandons her baby is presumed to be giving up her right to the child, though in at least two cases, one in San Antonio and one in Liberty County near Houston, the families of the abandoned babies later reclaimed the infants and were allowed to regain custody after proving parental rights.
However, CPS officials, backed by some legal experts, say that even when a mother makes it clear that she doesn't want the baby, they are obligated to find out if there may be a father who does.
Harris County CPS officials are very familiar with one such case. In summer 2001, a woman dropped her 4 1/2-month-old child at a Houston hospital, saying she wanted to abandon the infant in accordance with the Baby Moses Law.
Even though the baby was too old to fit under the protection of the law, the hospital complied. Unable to find out more about the parents, CPS arranged for the boy's adoption.
As it turned out, the infant had been born to a Louisiana woman who didn't want the child and was trying to foil a lawsuit the father had filed for paternal custody. A state district judge in Houston ruled that the statute of limitations had expired when the father learned two years later what the mother had done and challenged the adoption. He is appealing the ruling.
"The Baby Moses Law passed at the same time this occurred, and it is why she abandoned the baby in Texas -- because she had been told she could do it anonymously," said Andrea Todaro of La Porte, the father's attorney. "It has caused this father to lose all his right to his child."
F. Scott McCown, a former state district judge in Austin who now heads the Center for Public Policy Priorities there, said that while the law is well-intentioned, CPS is compelled to find out as much as they can about the baby's family.
"The law could be strengthened to better protect confidentiality, but we can't confuse confidentiality with anonymity," he said. "You can't provide anonymity because that violates the father's rights and the child's rights."
However, Charles Childress, a supervising attorney in the Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas, said most other states deal with the issue by having very limited rights for the biological fathers. Since Texas, 44 other states have adopted laws establishing havens for abandoned babies.
New York, Childress said, cuts off the fathers if they don't take an affirmative action, such as filing their names with a paternity registry. And Tim Jaccard, a Nassau County, N.Y., police medic and founder of the AMT Children of Hope Foundation, said hundreds of desperate mothers looking for help with their pregnancies have been calling a well-publicized hot line there because they know they can remain anonymous when they give up their babies.
In San Antonio, where seven babies have been safely abandoned over the past year, Assistant District Attorney Delia Carian and Bexar County Associate Judge Peter Sakai said they respect the desires of a woman who wants to remain anonymous. A father who suspects an abandoned child is his has access to a paternal registry, they say, and a notice of the abandonment is posted by the courthouse door.
Also in San Antonio, a public awareness campaign funded by the Phil and Linda Hardberger Foundation is gearing up to inform people about the Baby Moses Law through public service announcements on television and radio stations and with brochures and posters.
In Houston, the Harris County CPS has bumper stickers and posters giving out a toll-free number and urging distressed women who plan to abandon their babies to take them to a hospital or fire station where they'll be safe.
Since it was set up in December 1999, the hot line, 877-904-SAVE, has gotten calls from about 40 women who were considered at risk of abandoning their babies, officials say. Most of the 800-plus people who have called the hot line, however, were seeking information on adoptions and foster care.
Trisha, who hopes to adopt Baby Emily, is biding her time until a judge makes a final ruling on the case. It's a little nerve-wracking, she admits, knowing that any day the infant's biological parents could show up and say they want the baby back.
"We take it one day at a time; when it's out of your control, that's all you can do," she said. "But we've been doing a whole lot of praying about the fact that we get to keep her."


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