CLEARWATER — A dead baby with her umbilical cord still attached was discovered swaddled in a towel at the front door of a Clearwater fire station Friday morning, authorities said.
The baby was found by firefighters about 7:20 a.m. when they stepped outside to pick up the newspaper. Clearwater police are investigating the circumstances of her death. She has not been identified, but is believed to have been less than a day old, police said.
It remains unclear what time the baby was placed in front of the fire station Thursday night, and whether she was alive or dead when she was abandoned. It was a cold night, with Tampa Bay area temperatures in the low 40s early Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service. Except for the towel, the baby was naked, police said.
Whoever left the baby was possibly trying to take advantage of Florida's Safe Haven for Newborns law, a statute that permits parents to anonymously surrender custody of an infant 7 days old or younger at a fire station or hospital. A sign next to the door where the dead baby was discovered reads Safe Haven for Newborns and depicts an infant's hand grasping the larger hand of an adult.
However, the language of the statute requires that the newborn be "left with a firefighter, emergency medical technician or paramedic." Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said officials interpret that to mean the baby must be placed in the physical custody of a fire department employee, not simply abandoned outside.
"In this case, the baby was left out there, it was not turned over to anyone, and nobody knew the baby was out there," Watts said.
She noted that the front door is equipped with both an intercom and an emergency telephone.
"There are ways someone could have tried to reach someone, and at this point it does not appear that any attempt was made," Watts said.
Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Connors, head of emergency medical services at the station, declined to comment Friday and referred questions to Watts.
The firehouse, which sits on Sky Harbor Drive behind a Super Target store at the southeast corner of Clearwater Mall, is staffed around the clock, Watts said. Since authorities don't know when the baby was left, they can't say how many firefighters were inside the station at the time, Watts said.
The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office was performing an autopsy on the child's body Friday and conducting tests to determine the time and cause of death. Results were not immediately released.
Prompted by concern about rising rates of infanticide by women abandoning unwanted babies in trash receptacles and other hazardous locations, Florida's Safe Haven for Newborns law was signed in 2000 by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Since then, the program has successfully handled the transfers of 188 living infants, according to Nick Silverio, founder of the nonprofit program A Safe Haven for Newborns, which helps administer the legislation. Of those, 12 were in the four counties of the Tampa Bay area.
Silverio said there have been cases where a parent improperly left an infant at the front door of a firehouse, but those babies lived. He said he could not recall a baby dying after its parent seemingly made an effort to use the Safe Haven program.
He said babies left on firehouse doorsteps are becoming enough of a problem, however, that the Safe Haven sign displayed in front of stations is currently being redesigned to include the admonition, "Only when left with a staff member!"
"You say that's common sense, and it is," Silverio said. "But we don't know the psychological situation of the mom. For the most part, the message is getting across."
Linda Paliotti, 64, who lives in a mobile home park next to the station where the baby was found, said most residents of the immediate area are retired. She said she doubted that anyone from the neighborhood had abandoned the baby, and noted that with Clearwater Mall stores nearby, as well as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and the Courtney Campbell Parkway, the area is a crossroads for people from across the region.
"At least whoever it was took it to what she thought was a safe haven," Paliotti said.
Watts said the firefighters who found the baby, who have since gone home and were not available for an interview, were "very upset" over the discovery.
"I know that some of them were obviously disturbed by it," she said. "Any time you have a death involving a child, it's not something that personnel take lightly."
She said detectives are reviewing surveillance video footage from the area for clues about who dropped off the baby, and when.
Investigators are asking that anyone with information about the incident call the Clearwater Police Department at (727) 562-4242 or the Clearwater police tip line at (727) 562-4080.
Women seeking a referral for counseling about a pregnancy can call the confidential hot line of A Safe Haven for Newborns at (877) 767-2229.