Leaders seek 'baby safe-haven' law
MONTPELIER — Vermont's Republican lieutenant governor and Democratic secretary of state joined Tuesday to ask lawmakers to pass a bill granting immunity to mothers who abandon babies in safe places.
It is now illegal to abandon an infant anywhere in Vermont, even at a hospital. Parents who do so face up to 10 years in prison.
Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to craft legislation that would decriminalize abandonment if it takes place at a safe location like a church, police station or hospital.
Forty six other states have passed so-called "baby safe-haven" laws that encourage troubled mothers to leave their infants in good hands rather than Dumpsters and allies where they face injury or death.
"We want to decriminalize what is a sad, tragic, desperate situation," Markowitz told the committee.
For Markowitz the issue is personal. On a spring afternoon 14 years ago, she found a naked newborn abandoned under some trees in Montpelier's Hubbard Park.
Although the baby girl was rushed by ambulance to the hospital where she was treated and eventually adopted, her mother may have chosen to leave her in a safer place had she known doing so would not be considered a crime, according to the secretary of state.
"This is not the total answer," Markowitz said, acknowledging that formal adoption rather than abandonment is preferred. "But it is one more tool to prevent infants from being injured or dying."
Dubie agreed. The lieutenant governor not only asked senators to create safe havens, but vowed to lead an education effort that would make young parents aware that they will not face prosecution if they abandon a baby safely.
We want to "save infants whose lives are placed at risk because desperate and panicked mothers did not have a safe alternative," Dubie said.
The six-member Senate Judiciary Committee vowed to send a bill to the full Senate for consideration within the next two weeks. But before doing so, the committee must decide what constitutes a safe haven and set a maximum abandonment age.
A draft bill proposed by Sen. James Leddy, D-Chittenden, suggested that the immunity law apply to children under age 2 and said hospitals, fire stations and police departments become safe havens. But other committee members said the age could be too old and the places too few.
The committee will take testimony Friday from experts at the Department of Child and Family Services, as well as hear from others knowledgeable about child abandonment and adoption.
No one keeps statistics on how often Vermont babies are abandoned, but it is considered a rare occurrence that happens only once every few years. Police and prosecutors said they would support safe havens if they are set up properly.
The key, said Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper, "is that the child is transferred at one of these facilities and not abandoned on the doorstep of a volunteer fire station that is not open."
Committee members agreed but struggled with what places should be designated safe havens and whether the parent must physically hand the child to someone or just leave the baby where it easily will be found.
Several lawmakers focused on official places like hospitals and police stations. But Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said any occupied building with a phone can be a safe haven and suggested more common places like restaurants.
"I was not being facetious when I suggested McDonald's," Cummings said. "These are people who are desperate and maybe kept their pregnancy secret. They are looking for someplace quite anonymous. They want to drop the kid and go. If you have to walk into a hospital … that is a very public process."
Rocky Harlow, a Hinesburg resident and safe-haven advocate, encouraged the committee to include a two-week "change of heart" clause in the bill that would allow parents to reclaim their child without penalty.
"A lot of legislation in other states has that in it," Harlow said.
The committee instructed staff to research how other rural states have written safe-haven laws and report back before it discusses the issue again on Friday.
Markowitz said she hopes the Legislature will create a safe-haven law so no other newborn's life is dependent on someone accidentally stumbling across her in a field.
"I thought the baby was a kitten who was in trouble because they make the same kind of mewing noise," said Markowitz, who was out walking her own 1-year old when she rescued the abandoned infant. "I went off the beaten track to find the kitten and instead found a baby."
She added, "It was in May and it was unusually warm. That is why she survived. Had it been a normal spring day. her body temperature would have been affected and she would have been in trouble."
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