Issues - Protecting Children from state - Abandoned
Officials hope more mothers will find answer
in safe-abandonment law
By MELANIE MARKLEY
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
The tiny baby they call Emily napped peacefully in the arms
of the only mother she's ever known. She was, after all, one
of the lucky ones.
Just 16 days earlier, the newborn had been abandoned. But
her birth mother at least had taken advantage of a law that
encouraged her to leave the child in safe hands -- in this
case, in a hospital emergency room. It was only a few years
ago when other Houston-area babies weren't so fortunate, and
the woman who now hopes to adopt Emily still agonizes over
"I can recall being devastated by the news of another
baby found dead or in a Dumpster or in some field," said
the woman, who asked to use only her first name, Trisha, to
avoid unwanted publicity. "I would have easily taken
any one of those children."
In 1999, Texas passed the nation's first Baby Moses Law, offering
parents immunity from prosecution if they leave their newborns
in hospitals or fire stations with medical technicians. The
law took effect in September of that year. But while 10 Houston-area
babies have been abandoned in safe places since the law was
enacted, at least 12 others haven't been, and three of them
died. The problem, officials say, is that too many desperate
mothers still don't know about the law.
What's more, some officials fear
that the policy of Child Protective Services to look for the
mother after she's legally abandoned the baby could be keeping
people from using the law.
CPS officials say they are obligated to look for the parents
because judges here require due diligence in trying to find
them before severing their parental rights. But others, including
state Rep. Geanie Morrison, the law's author, say the mothers
want anonymity, or they would have found another alternative.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, honorary chair of the Baby Moses
Foundation in Texas, said that in the next legislative session,
he plans to secure funding to publicize the law and seek additional
support in communities to help get out the word. He knows
funds are tight, he said, "but this project, in my judgment,
is so important. It clearly saves lives."
Dewhurst also said he would like to tighten the law to protect
the anonymity of parents who use it.
"I think CPS is good-hearted, and they simply are trying
to follow what they believe is the law," said Dewhurst.
"But if we have to tweak the law in the next session,
Reliable statistics on the number of infants abandoned under
the Baby Moses Law are elusive. Morrison, R-Victoria, said
that based on news stories and calls from CPS workers, she
knows of at least 19 babies statewide who have been legally
abandoned since 1999. CPS does not keep official records.
But in the Houston area, anecdotal information kept by Harris
County CPS shows that of the 22 abandonments since the law's
passage, 10 were somewhere in or near a hospital or fire station,
even though not all of the children were actually handed over
One fact is certain, however. Fewer abandoned babies are being
found in the area. Two infants were abandoned each year in
2003 and 2004, and all were found safe. Five years earlier,
the statistics were far bleaker. Between December 1998 and
mid-September 1999, 13 babies were abandoned in the Houston
area, including two found dead in garbage bins and one found
dead in a field.
The motivating force behind the Baby Moses Law was Dr. John
M. Richardson, a Fort Worth pediatrician. He had read an article
suggesting such an idea and found a legislator to champion
the cause. But he said it's apparent that more needs to be
done to inform people the law exists.
"I was very naive in thinking all I needed to do was
to get this law passed and then everything would take off,"
Under the Baby Moses Law, the parent may remain anonymous
when dropping off a newborn up to 60 days old at a hospital,
a fire station or certain child-placement facilities licensed
by the state. Also, emergency personnel are under no obligation
to detain or pursue the parent unless the child appears to
have been abused or neglected.
The mother who legally abandons her baby is presumed to be
giving up her right to the child, though in at least two cases,
one in San Antonio and one in Liberty County near Houston,
the families of the abandoned babies later reclaimed the infants
and were allowed to regain custody after proving parental
However, CPS officials, backed by some legal experts, say
that even when a mother makes it clear that she doesn't want
the baby, they are obligated to find out if there may be a
father who does.
Harris County CPS officials are very familiar with one such
case. In summer 2001, a woman dropped her 4 1/2-month-old
child at a Houston hospital, saying she wanted to abandon
the infant in accordance with the Baby Moses Law.
Even though the baby was too old to fit under the protection
of the law, the hospital complied. Unable to find out more
about the parents, CPS arranged for the boy's adoption.
As it turned out, the infant had been born to a Louisiana
woman who didn't want the child and was trying to foil a lawsuit
the father had filed for paternal custody. A state district
judge in Houston ruled that the statute of limitations had
expired when the father learned two years later what the mother
had done and challenged the adoption. He is appealing the
"The Baby Moses Law passed at the same time this occurred,
and it is why she abandoned the baby in Texas -- because she
had been told she could do it anonymously," said Andrea
Todaro of La Porte, the father's attorney. "It has caused
this father to lose all his right to his child."
F. Scott McCown, a former state district judge in Austin who
now heads the Center for Public Policy Priorities there, said
that while the law is well-intentioned, CPS is compelled to
find out as much as they can about the baby's family.
"The law could be strengthened to better protect confidentiality,
but we can't confuse confidentiality with anonymity,"
he said. "You can't provide anonymity because that violates
the father's rights and the child's rights."
However, Charles Childress, a supervising attorney in the
Children's Rights Clinic at the University of Texas, said
most other states deal with the issue by having very limited
rights for the biological fathers. Since Texas, 44 other states
have adopted laws establishing havens for abandoned babies.
New York, Childress said, cuts off the fathers if they don't
take an affirmative action, such as filing their names with
a paternity registry. And Tim Jaccard, a Nassau County, N.Y.,
police medic and founder of the AMT Children of Hope Foundation,
said hundreds of desperate mothers looking for help with their
pregnancies have been calling a well-publicized hot line there
because they know they can remain anonymous when they give
up their babies.
In San Antonio, where seven babies have been safely abandoned
over the past year, Assistant District Attorney Delia Carian
and Bexar County Associate Judge Peter Sakai said they respect
the desires of a woman who wants to remain anonymous. A father
who suspects an abandoned child is his has access to a paternal
registry, they say, and a notice of the abandonment is posted
by the courthouse door.
Also in San Antonio, a public awareness campaign funded by
the Phil and Linda Hardberger Foundation is gearing up to
inform people about the Baby Moses Law through public service
announcements on television and radio stations and with brochures
In Houston, the Harris County CPS has bumper stickers and
posters giving out a toll-free number and urging distressed
women who plan to abandon their babies to take them to a hospital
or fire station where they'll be safe.
Since it was set up in December 1999, the hot line, 877-904-SAVE,
has gotten calls from about 40 women who were considered at
risk of abandoning their babies, officials say. Most of the
800-plus people who have called the hot line, however, were
seeking information on adoptions and foster care.
Trisha, who hopes to adopt Baby Emily, is biding her time
until a judge makes a final ruling on the case. It's a little
nerve-wracking, she admits, knowing that any day the infant's
biological parents could show up and say they want the baby
"We take it one day at a time; when it's out of your
control, that's all you can do," she said. "But
we've been doing a whole lot of praying about the fact that
we get to keep her."