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Law to protect abandoned babies hits milestone

The young woman standing at the door of East Lake Fire Station No. 56 needed help.

Do fire stations still take unwanted babies?

Yes, said Lt. Doug Stryjewski, who followed her to a car, where a newborn was wrapped in a towel on the front seat. The woman, pale and in her 20s, had given birth that morning.

As he took the baby, he asked if she was okay.

"I'm fine. I just can't handle this right now," she said. Then she got in the car and drove away.

That May 30 exchange was remarkable for firefighters, who took turns holding the infant until hospital workers arrived. But it also was a landmark for the state's Safe Haven for Newborns program.

"Nicholas" was the 100th baby to be dropped off at a fire station or hospital in Florida since the law was passed in 2000 amid numerous reports of babies discarded in trash bins and bathrooms.

At the time, Florida was one of 15 states to create such a law. Now, every state has one. Florida recently expanded its law to allow mothers to leave babies up to 7 days old without fear of criminal prosecution. Previously, the limit was three days.

Spreading the word

The baby left at the Pinellas County fire station was named after Nick Silverio, who created a nonprofit foundation in 2001 to spearhead education about the new law.

Silverio, 65, who owns a software company in Miami, was inspired by his wife's death and an article he read in Reader's Digest about infant abandonment.

The Miami-based organization, which began with two members, has grown to include 300 volunteers and 43 chapters statewide. It relies mostly on donations for its $300,000 annual operating budget.

Volunteers deliver literature about the law to state hospitals, clinics and fire stations. They staff a multilingual hotline, which gets seven or eight calls a day.

In some cases, women decide to keep their children after volunteers connect them with medical and social services.

"Someone might have said, 'We'll come and get the child,' and that's not our objective," Silverio said. "Our objective is to help the mom on what she wants to do."

This fall, the group will reach into high schools to distribute materials about the law to teens.

"They're kids having kids, and they don't know what to do, and they panic, and they're afraid to tell their parents or a trusted adult, and then they make the decision they make," Silverio said. "There's help available, and it's a matter of letting them know that."

In August, they will film a rap video telling women: "Remember this, your life matters and so does your baby's. Safe Haven for Newborns is now there for you."

The group isn't involved in placing abandoned babies. Once a baby is dropped off, firefighters call a local hospital, where workers deal directly with private adoption agencies.

Hundreds saved

Despite the foundation's outreach efforts, some think the law isn't as effective as it could be because there is still a lack of awareness.

Since the law was enacted, 39 babies were abandoned in unsafe places. Only 15 of those survived.

The Rev. David Gerber, director of pastoral care at All Children's Hospital, estimates that less than half of the state's child care community knows about the law.

"It was probably one of the best intended laws that's been enacted, but we haven't done the best job of getting that intention out, still," Gerber said.

Nationwide, concerns exist over the babies' lack of medical histories and fathers' rights. Critics also say that the underlying issues behind abandonment, such as pregnancy prevention, go unaddressed.

Silverio believes those naysayers are missing the point. The law is meant to confront reality and save lives, not to dissect social issues.

"Mothers were leaving babies in dumps and canals," Silverio said. "That's what was happening, and that's why the law was passed."

On a national scale, it is hard to gauge the programs' effectiveness because there isn't a central tracking method of the infants saved.

But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which has updated data for seven states, hundreds of babies have been saved.

In California, as of December 2007, 220 babies had been safely dropped off. Other states have much lower numbers than Florida.

"If it wasn't for the law, God only knows where the kids would have ended up," said Rep. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill this year that lengthened the amount of time a mother has before leaving her baby.

'A feeling of joy'

Lori Lewis, 43, of Owensboro, Ky., suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, and helped raise several foster children, but never conceived one of her own.

Then, on Father's Day 2003, a woman turned a baby in at a Broward County Fire station.

Firefighters called her Hope. She was the 16th baby rescued in the state. A local adoption agency offered her and her husband, Michael, the little girl.

"It was euphoric. A feeling of joy," Lewis said. "When you can't have one of your own, and you've repeatedly tried, it's like giving birth."

The baby grew into a little girl, who prefers drinking from a glass rather than plastic cups and loves Target dresses and jewelry.

This past weekend the family, which has since moved to Kentucky, celebrated Gloria Hope's 5th birthday.

One day, when she is old enough, her parents will give her the letter from her biological mother, who explains that she left her baby because she loved her.

"I thank her every day for the choice she made; we've just so enjoyed raising her," Lewis said. "When you think of the choice she made, I hope and pray she has peace in her heart. I hope all mothers do."

Law to protect abandoned babies hits milestone 06/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:24am]
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