In this prosperous country, news of abandoned babies is always shocking. From the comfortable vantage point that many of us enjoy, it's difficult to empathize with mothers who set their babies down and walk away, even when they leave their children near safe locations frequented by caring individuals, such as churches and police stations.
But Rep. Cheryl Winkler, R-Cincinnati, believes the state shouldn't punish desperate mothers, often frightened children themselves, who seek out safe places to leave their unwanted babies.
"A woman in Saylor Park faced prosecution because she left her baby at a church," Winkler said. "Punishment just doesn't seem fair to me in these types of cases."
So Winkler and Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, drafted legislation similar to a law recently passed in Texas. The bill, which they introduced last month, offers protection from prosecution to parents who leave babies under 30 days old at hospitals or with law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians or paramedics.
If the bill passes, prosecutors could not seek to convict parents who leave their babies in these safe places on neglect or abuse charges. Although prosecutors could still pursue abandonment charges, the parents could defend themselves by showing that they'd left the child at a safe place.
One step ahead of the state legislature, a local initiative will soon begin offering the same judicial clemency to parents who abandon a child at hospitals located within Hamilton County.
"The hospitals are on board, Children's Services is on board and the Hamilton County prosecutor is on board," said Colleen Gerwe, a section chief with Children's Services, a division of the Hamilton County Department of Human Services. "All that's left is for the hospitals to develop a protocol for accepting these babies."
The local program, modeled after one in Mobile, Ala., operates not on statute but on an agreement from prosecutors that they'll not pursue convictions of parents who follow the procedures established for safely leaving a baby. While some argue that such clemency doesn't hold individuals responsible for their actions, Winkler believes that punitive measures will only make abandonments more furtive.
"We're dealing with frightened young women, many of them just teen-agers," Winkler said. "Punishing the parent does not save the baby."
And, according to Gerwe, the threat of imprisonment doesn't generally prevent parents from abandoning a child.
"These people are not making a rational decision," she said. "We're talking about giving another choice to someone who would otherwise take a desperate measure."
Winkler's law doesn't stop with the acceptance of the child at the designated locations. The person receiving the deserted baby would immediately notify a public children's service agency, such as Children's Services in Hamilton County. This agency would then either take temporary custody of the child and attempt to place it in a permanent home or relinquish custody to a private adoption agency.
"I don't see any problem placing these babies," said Winkler, who drafted changes to Ohio's adoption laws last term. "People want to adopt babies."
The baby's natural parents could petition the courts to regain custody only until permanent custody has been granted to another. It would be necessary for those seeking to regain custody to undergo DNA testing, at their own expense, to prove that they're the child's natural parents.
While recognizing that some babies are unwanted, the bill contains provisions for notifying the parent or parents abandoning the baby that state and private resources are available to them as new parents. Hospital workers, police officers and emergency medical technicians will provide this educational material to parents leaving a child, perhaps encouraging some to return for their babies.
Bills introduced in the second April of the General Assembly's two-year term often are unable to gain the interest and momentum necessary for passage in both the House and Senate. Winkler, however, believes that the brevity and simplicity of her bill will overcome this time constraint. She might be right — 18 representatives, in addition to co-author Schuring, have already signed on as co-sponsors.
The House Rules and Reference committee could nearly guarantee the bill a House floor vote by assigning it to the Children and Family Services committee, which is chaired by Winkler.