ANNAPOLIS – A change to legislation that allows distraught mothers to legally abandon their babies prompted more than 20 members of the Maryland House of Delegates to remove their names as co-sponsors of the bill.
Sponsors requested their names be crossed off after the House Judiciary Committee changed the bill to allow mothers to leave their newborns with any “responsible person.”
The intent of the legislation is to prevent mothers from dropping their unwanted newborns in trash dumps or leaving them on street corners. The bill was prompted by a few highly publicized cases around the country – including one in Maryland.
The House bill has changed from the original, which would have allowed parents to anonymously leave their babies at a police station, hospital, social service agency or firehouse with no questions asked.
The amended House bill now is much more expansive than safe haven laws passed in the last three years in 35 states. Most states specify places where babies may be legally dropped off.
“This is somebody who is completely whacked out,” said Delegate Dana L. Dembrow, D-Montgomery, during House debate. “They are on the verge of dropping their baby in a Dumpster. That young lady is not running down to the law library to research the law and see where she can drop the baby.”
As long as the responsible person is not negligent or abuses the baby, the recipient would not be responsible for any actions taken on the child’s behalf and the mother would be granted immunity for abandoning her baby.
Supporters of the bill in its current form — including powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s – said the original bill was too narrow.
“What we are trying to do is save babies,” Vallario.
He asked House members to consider a young woman who has no car and could not easily get to a hospital, police station or other designated safe haven. Instead, the mother could give the baby to someone she trusted — a priest, preacher, lawyer, family physician or even a manager at McDonald’s.
Some who support the idea of designating safe havens don’t like the Judiciary Committee’s “responsible person” designation.
“If this were a rational person in this situation, sure, you could leave the baby with anybody,” said Delegate Charles E. Barkley, D-Montgomery. “My heart says that child (the mother) is not very rational. We’ve got to give them a safe place to take the baby.”
Others opposed to the responsible-person provision said firehouses, hospitals and police stations can provide immediate medical attention to the babies. A “responsible person” may not.
Delegate Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery, lead House sponsor, has pushed safe haven legislation in the last two sessions. She also opposes including all responsible people.
The original bill had more than 50 co-sponsors. Almost half have since pulled their names from the revised bill.
“It is legally impossible to define what a responsible person is and it could lead to untold litigation,” Grosfeld said.
Supporters of the bill said they are purposely leaving it vague and will allow the courts to decide whether the person the baby was left with was truly responsible.
“You’ll know him when you see him. You’ll know her when you see her,” Vallario said.
But even with the controversy, the bill should have enough votes to pass the House. Members approved the changes 82-47 Wednesday.
The legislation is patterned after a similar law in New York. The other states that have safe haven laws designate specific places as safe havens.
Both houses of the Maryland General Assembly passed bills last session that listed specific places where infants could be abandoned. The legislation died because of an unresolved debate about whether often-unmanned firehouses should be included in the bill.
On the Senate side, Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, doesn’t support safe haven legislation in any form. His committee heard testimony on safe haven bills Thursday.
The incidences are too rare to merit a law, he said. Nationally, in 1991 there were 65 accounts of abandoned babies and 105 in 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “I don’t think people should be dumping their babies,” Baker. “I think it’s a stupid bill.” – 30 – CNS-2-28-02