TOPEKA — Reacting to a case in which Wichita police publicized a hunt for a new mother who had abandoned her child at a local hospital, the House unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to try to keep it from happening again.
House Bill 2577 would amend the state’s Newborn Infant Protection Act to protect the anonymity of parents who leave a baby at a hospital, fire station, or city or county health facility.
The underlying law allows parents to leave a baby less than 45 days old in one of those “safe havens” without fear of prosecution. The infant is taken into protective custody and becomes a ward of the state.
The act is similar to safe haven laws in a number of states.
HB 2577 passed 123-0 and is headed to the Senate.
It seeks to strengthen the existing law by:
• allowing a parent or guardian who leaves a child at a safe haven to do so without providing his or her real name. The person could also provide family or medical history information anonymously.
• allowing hospitals or other safe haven facilities to keep identifying information on the parent or guardian confidential, except in cases where child abuse is suspected.
Rep. Jan Pauls, D-Hutchinson, who introduced HB 2577, said anonymity is absolutely essential for a Safe Haven law to work.
Often, the reason a young mother abandons a newborn child is desperation to conceal the fact that she was pregnant from relatives or others, Pauls said.
“We don’t want to influence someone not to turn a baby in (at a safe haven) because they’re afraid it will be known publicly,” Pauls said. “We want to prevent someone in a difficult situation from just hiding the child or tossing the child into a trash can.”
Pauls said she introduced the bill to prevent a repeat of a January incident in Wichita, when a mother who left her baby at a hospital was publicly identified.
In that case, police launched a broad public search for a woman who walked away from Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph Hospital, leaving her premature newborn son in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Police asked the local media for help in publicizing the search, identifying the woman and providing her picture to media outlets at the department’s daily briefing.
The picture and identifying information was carried by television stations and appeared on The Wichita Eagle’s website, www.kansas.com, for about three hours before it was removed. It was not published in the newspaper.
The action of publicizing the woman drew strong criticism from advocates for safe haven laws across the country.
A police spokesman did not respond to a request by The Eagle for comment on the bill on Wednesday.
Previously, police have defended their decision to release the information and enlist media help, saying that while the safe haven law shields the parent from prosecution, it does not guarantee anonymity.
Police officials said they wanted to find the woman – who had left the hospital against medical advice – to ensure her welfare.
Police did locate the woman and found that she was fine. She had checked into the hospital under an assumed name.
Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle