A proposal that would allow parents to place up to month-old newborns in so-called “baby boxes” instead of handing them over to firefighters, paramedics and emergency personnel cleared a Senate health-care panel on Tuesday.
Despite the support for the measure (SB 122), Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said a nearly hour-long discussion on the bill underscores that there’s “work to be done.”
“I know there’s still disagreement. I think it’s very clear, it’s very clear to Senator Baxley, that there’s work to be done on this bill to get it in a better position,” said Bean, referring to bill sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
The bill would change a state law about abandoned infants to allow babies up to 30 days old to be placed in a “newborn infant safety device” located on exterior walls of fire stations, emergency medical-services stations or hospitals. The bill would require the devices to have certain design features that are included in devices made by Safe Haven Baby Boxes. Baxley denied that the bill only benefits Safe Haven Baby Boxes, an Indiana-based nonprofit.
The bill is opposed by A Safe Haven for Newborns, a nonprofit group that has worked with 5,000 Florida women in the past 20 years.
According to a legislative staff analysis, 386 newborns have been abandoned in Florida since 2000 when a state law about abandoning babies at fire stations or hospitals was first passed. Of that total, 324 were abandoned in such safe circumstances. Of the 62 infants not safely abandoned, 32 died.
Baxley said his bill would increase choices for women by allowing them to use the boxes and said nine other states have passed legislation authorizing the baby boxes.
“This is about the rescue,” Baxley said.
Opponents, though, worry that baby boxes will preclude women who surrender newborn infants from getting follow-up counseling. It also will preclude the infants who were surrendered from having access to their medical backgrounds.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, worried that Baxley’s bill doesn’t spell out what would happen with infants after they are placed in the boxes and would allow the Department of Health to adopt rules for regulation of the boxes.
“There are custody issues,” Book said.
The boxes are required to be equipped with a specific alarm system that triggers when a newborn is placed inside. An interior surveillance system has led some lawmakers to believe that Baxley’s bill would benefit only Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
“The specifications in the bill would point to Safe Haven Baby Boxes. Can you explain why that’s the case in the bill,” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, asked Baxley.
Baxley said the details included in the bill are guidelines.
“You can design this and put this together yourself by the specifications. There’s nothing tied to selling baby boxes about this,” Baxley said. “To advocate that this is about them making money, they are not making money. Not that kind of money. They are not making near what some of the other organizational leaders are making on children's issues. Believe me. They are interested in sparing kids and giving them a chance to have a life.”
Before voting on the measure, senators heard remote public testimony, with Florida Voice for the Unborn founder Andrew Shirvell saying he couldn’t understand the opposition.
“This bill is a no-brainer. Opposition to it is manufactured purely for political theater or based on disinformation,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, took umbrage at the comment, saying the testimony was “extremely insulting.” Farmer said Shirvell should be prevented from testifying before the Legislature in the future.
Kirk Zeppi, a licensed mental-health counselor in Bradenton, said women who surrender their children still have what he called “God-given instincts to protect their child.”
“Logical thinking would demonstrate that a woman trying to protect her child would much more be apt to hand her child to a person wearing a uniform or scrubs. Having eye-to-eye contact with a professional who is in the business of saving lives will indeed satisfy that mother’s instinctual desire to protect her baby. The box provides for none of that,” he said.
Zeppi also said Safe Haven Baby Boxes’ promotional videos “refer to the box door working like an oven.”
As testimony ended, Bean said he didn’t have the ability to pause the debate and that there “were some offensive things said on both sides whether for or against this bill.”
Bean called for a vote on the bill minutes before the scheduled adjournment of the meeting.
“I appreciate everybody,” Bean said. “We could have debated all day on it.”
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