April 14, 2017

Indiana General Assembly tweaks ‘baby box’ law

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill to ensure safety for newborns deposited into “baby boxes” cleared a final hurdle on April 3 when it passed the Indiana House by a 92-4 vote. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the proposal.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, author of Senate Bill 246, the “baby box” bill, said he brought the legislation forward as a way to fix a glitch in administering the “baby box” provision of Indiana’s Safe Haven Law.

Holdman said two years ago the Indiana General Assembly passed a proposal giving authority to the Indiana Department of Health (IDOH) to promulgate rules governing the use of newborn safety incubator devices, commonly referred to as “baby boxes.” A “baby box” is a device where a parent could anonymously place his or her unwanted infant, and a sensor would notify emergency personnel that a baby had been placed into the device for retrieval.

“We’ve had a little bit of a problem getting the program rolled out because those rules were never promulgated because it was felt by some at the Department of Health that this was abandonment,” said Holdman.

The Safe Haven Law allows a newborn baby who is less than 30 days old to be handed off to an emergency medical provider that is designated as a safe harbor.

Without a “baby box,” the transfer of the baby involves a face-to-face encounter between a parent and emergency staff. Testimony indicated that parent anonymity may enhance successful transfers of infants through a “baby box” device. Indiana’s Safe Haven Law allows legal anonymity, but the “baby box” provision allows full anonymity, an impetus for the original legislation.

Holdman said the legislation would set up a system where a baby would be safe, but the devices would be installed in a hospital or a hospital-affiliated facility.

“The drop off location would be in a conspicuous, visible place to the hospital staff,” said Holdman. The bill provides immunity for a hospital, and the program is voluntary.

The Indiana Department of Child Services administers the Safe Haven Law. The law enables a person to give up an unwanted infant anonymously without fear of arrest or prosecution. As long as there are no signs of intentional abuse of the baby, no information is required of the person leaving the baby. The Indiana Department of Child Services takes the baby into custody through Child Protective Services and places the child with a caregiver.

Parvonay Stover, legislative director for the Department of Child Services, said the Children’s Commission reviewed the Safe Haven Law, and did not recommend statewide use of the “baby boxes” due to concerns about child safety associated costs and potential liability. Two “baby box” devices are operational at fire stations in northwest Indiana, and will be permitted to continue, but new “baby boxes” would be located at hospitals or hospital-affiliated facilities.

Cathie Humbarger, executive director of Allen County Right to Life, who testified in support of the legislation, said even with the publicity and education regarding the two boxes already in place—including one available in Allen County—not a single newborn has been deposited. Humbarger said since March of 2016 the publicity has generated nearly 1,000 calls to the baby safe hotline that have been answered by trained volunteers. There have been 142 pregnancy resource center referrals, four confirmed adoption referrals and six confirmed face-to-face surrenders.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana, also testified in support of the bill. He said even though Indiana’s Safe Haven law allows a parent to relinquish an unwanted infant to medical or public safety personnel, too many infants are still abandoned and left to perish.

“It is not clear why a parent would not take the infant to a place where proper care for the child could be provided,” said Tebbe. “If there is a problem due to not wanting to be identified as abandoning the child, the newborn safety incubator is an answer, if anonymity is necessary.

“The program has had an impact and has helped parents in need seek and find assistance for the child and the family,” Tebbe continued. “While concerns were raised about the safety of a child in the baby safe device, Senate Bill 246 addresses the safety concerns by requiring them at hospitals where staff can provide immediate care.”

The Children’s Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, issued the Child Welfare Gateway Information report in February 2013 on safe haven laws in the United States. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia provide parent anonymity. In 34 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, parents retain criminal immunity when a baby is relinquished to a safe haven.

State lawmakers are expected to complete their legislative business and to finalize a state budget in less than two weeks. For a status update on priority legislation the ICC is following, go to the I-CAN Update at www.indianacc.org.
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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