By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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Fort Worth pediatrician John Richardson approached state Representative Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, about creating a safe place for mothers to leave unwanted infants. Researching the proposal, Morrison discovered that no one records the number of babies abandoned. "There were no statistics," Morrison says. "All we could find out was what were in the newspaper articles." In 1998, the Department of Health and Human Services surveyed a handful of newspapers and declared that 108 babies had been abandoned nationally and that 33 had died. Those numbers are low, Morrison says, because they account for only the babies that were found or reported, and not every newspaper was searched. And searches of a newspaper's archives often can be inaccurate.
Morrison wrote the safe haven law, which said babies less than a month old could be left at a hospital or fire station in the arms of an emergency medical technician (which in essence means a firefighter, since not every hospital staffer is a trained EMT).
But even if the baby was unharmed and healthy, the district attorney still could prosecute the mother for child endangerment. "This is not a get-out-of-jail-free law, and it's not a no-questions-asked law," Hay said shortly after the law was passed. "Questions will have to be asked." The law just gave the mother's attorney a solid argument in court.
Morrison contended that the law would save two lives: that of the baby, who could be devoured by stray dogs, and of the mother, who could be locked up. House Bill 3423 passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, and then-governor George W. Bush signed it into law on June 6, 1999.
In theory, the law seemed like a really good idea -- an enlightened, proactive way to keep babies from dying in ditches. But critics argue that the law merely perpetuates the problem, promoting abandonment instead of other options. "It encourages irresponsibility," says Marley Greiner, executive chair of Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights organization. "They can just have this baby and get rid of it, and nobody will ever have to know. It's basically, 'This is our little secret.' "
Officials didn't want to advocate abandonment, but they wanted to keep babies alive. "People say, 'Let's set bassinets out in public so people can put their babies in them,' " Hay says. "No, no, no. Abandonment cannot be an option."
The law is a compromise, Mooney says. If a baby is going to be abandoned, at least it will live. Since the safe haven law was passed, 36 other states have patterned Baby Moses laws after the Texas bill. Each state law varies on where the infant can be left and how old the newborn can be, ranging from three days in California to one year in North Dakota. Some safe haven laws are merely legal defenses, while others grant mothers complete immunity.
The day the Texas law went into effect, 15-year-old Erika Enriquez went into labor. She delivered her baby in the ROTC bathroom at Scarborough High School in northwest Houston. To quiet the crying child, she placed it in the trash can. The baby girl was found dead in the school's Dumpster; Erika was arrested and charged with murder.
Already, the law wasn't working.
In the two weeks after the law went into effect, seven Texas babies were abandoned in unsafe places. Nearly a year after the law was passed, no mothers had taken advantage of it, despite the ad campaign launched by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. The congresswoman announced the law in a televised commercial, and her 36-person Baby Abandonment Task Force plastered 75 billboards around Houston. A silhouette of a diapered Huggies baby stacks toy blocks to spell the word SAVE. In huge red letters, the sign screams, "Don't Abandon Your Baby!" In smaller letters, it offers the option of taking the child to an EMT at a fire station or a hospital and lists the baby abandonment hot line.
Still, the law was ignored.
When the legislation was passed, funds weren't allocated to promote it. "That's the biggest roadblock we ran into," says Morrison's aide, Justin Unruh, director of the Baby Moses Foundation. As babies continued to be abandoned and continued to die, Morrison and Richardson decided not to wait until the next legislative session to beg for funds. Instead, they created the Baby Moses Foundation to raise money to promote the law.
Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst donated more than $100,000 of his personal funds to launch the first ad campaign. In a 30-second commercial filmed in both English and Spanish, a teen mom is shown walking by a Dumpster holding a baby. She says she can't keep the baby and she doesn't know what else to do -- she feels like she doesn't have any other option. The camera pans to a fire station where the mother hands her baby to a big strong firefighter. Now, the baby is safe. A voice-over says, "If you can't do the best thing, do the right thing."
The commercial aired on the law's first anniversary. A week later, the first baby was safely abandoned. A 20-year-old woman delivered her child in an Austin hotel room, then called a local adoption agency that informed her about the law. She left the baby at Breckenridge Hospital's emergency room.