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Burden of Proof

Abandoned Baby Laws: Will They Help Save Newborn Lives?

Aired March 8, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LINDA BRAKEFIELD: What mother could go through labor, which is not an easy task, and throw -- hear that baby thud in a dumpster and turn around and walk off. That's got to haunt them for the rest of their lives.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: New laws limit the prosecution of women who leave their babies in safe havens. Will these laws help save newborn lives? And will it affect the parental rights of the biological parents?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES BRULTE, CALIFORNIA STATE SENATE: They have seen a huge increase in abandonments, but what they have found is people are not throwing their babies away and leaving them to die.

MARK WASHBURN, CAPITOL RESOURCES INSTITUTE: It would encourage more people to abandon their babies. Every woman, who has ever suffered from postpartum depression two weeks after she's given birth to a baby, is going to have thoughts of: Gosh, maybe I should give up my baby.

BRAKEFIELD: I'm hoping the girls will take advantage of it, instead of doing as my daughter did and just putting them in a dumpster. I'm afraid: Will they, though? If they're that afraid of confronting a mother or a friend, will they go to a stranger and say: Here, take my child?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Sadly, stories of this nature have become all too common: a baby born in a bathroom on prom night, then stuffed into a trash can; an infant left for dead in a hotel dumpster.

And, now, communities across the nation are trying to save the lives of abandoned babies. Some are experimenting with safe zones, areas in which mothers can bring their children to be cared for by medical professionals. Some states have passed laws protecting the mothers from prosecution, providing they bring their babies to a safe haven.

Joining us today from Anaheim, California, is Laurie Larson of Project Cuddle; in Wilmington, Delaware, Joe Hurley, attorney for Brian Peterson, who spent 18 months in prison for manslaughter after he and his girlfriend left their newborn son in a hotel dumpster. And also joining us here in Washington are Kenny Bowen (ph), Montgomery County, Maryland, state's attorney Doug Gansler, and Gregory Damico (ph). In our back row, Alison Sawyer (ph) and Greg Renden (ph).

And also joining us on the phone is WPMI-TV reporter Jodi Brooks, who enlisted the support of an Alabama district attorney, local hospitals and social workers to develop a safe-zone program in Mobile, Alabama.

Let me go first to you, Jodi. What is the program that you helped develop?

JODI BROOKS, WPMI REPORTER: The program is called a Secret Safe Place For Newborns. It allows a woman, who is pregnant, who has hidden her pregnancy, who has not told anybody, who has not had any prenatal care -- we are talking about an emergency baby here -- she has hidden her baby, she doesn't want it, and, instead of throwing it in a dumpster or leaving it in a canal, she can take it to an area hospital's emergency room, hand the baby to a doctor or nurse, and walk away. It's completely confidential, no questions will be asked, and no criminal charges will be filed, as long as that baby is not harmed.

We encourage them to take the baby to the hospital within 72 hours to ensure that this baby is healthy. We -- a lot of these women haven't had any prenatal care, and we want to encourage them to take this baby to a hospital to see a baby -- see a doctor, excuse me, as soon as possible.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jodi, does it encourage abandonment?

BROOKS: We don't think it encourages abandonment at all. We are talking about a woman who has hidden her pregnancy -- it's that emergency baby. She has foregone abstinence; she has foregone prenatal care; she has foregone counseling; she has foregone protection. We are talking about an emergency baby here.

The option is: What is she going to do with this baby? Is she going to get rid of it? Or is she going to take it to a hospital?

That's what we want; we want to save a life.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jodi, I assume that the parental rights of the mother are terminated in some fashion. But does the law in Alabama provide for any protection for the biological father?

BROOKS: Right now, we don't have a law in Alabama. We just have this program that has been endorsed by all district attorneys across the state. We have a bill that's been drafted, that is now being -- it's up for debate in the House here in Alabama. We don't have a law. As far as the legalities of it go, we just want to save a life. We are very focused on our program. We -- the doctors and nurses take care of this baby; it is placed in a foster home and eventually adopted.

We have saved four lives with this program. In one instance, in fact, the mother, actually, came back and wanted her baby back, which was a great thing; we reunited a mother and her baby. The mother was a high school dropout; she got parenting classes; she got counseling; she got back in high school. And in that case, we saved two lives; we saved the mother from a lifetime of guilt and possible prosecution, and we saved the newborn.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let's go to Anaheim, California. Laurie Larson joins us from there.

Laurie, you oppose this safe haven program and the concept of a bill or a law to create these in different states, do you not?

LAURIE LARSON, PROJECT CUDDLE: Well, it is not that we oppose so much as that we are finding a lot of loopholes in it. And that's our concern, in that the laws that are being enacted now, most of them are being mirrored after the law that was enacted in Texas. And after being asked to be on the Baby Abandonment Task Force by Sheila Jackson-Lee, we've done some research, and we did talk to the district attorney there in Houston. And he said that while it is being advertised that these girls are -- have no fear of prosecution, in reality all they have is an affirmative defense, and that means that it is up to discretion of the district attorney whether they choose to prosecutor or not. So that's a concern to us.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me just ask you to back up for a second. What is Project Cuddle?

LARSON: Project Cuddle is a nationwide program, nonprofit program, we have a 24-hour crisis hotline, and we have women and girls calling in in crisis who are considering abandoning their babies. And to date, we have saved 192 babies and have about 250 new cases that we are working on.

And the girls that call in are truly in crisis. As a matter of fact, we had one in Houston, I will give you a story. That she called our hotline and she was days away from giving birth. And she -- we gained her confidence, and she started talking about possibly giving the baby up, or she just wasn't sure what she was going to do. She ended up calling us as she was in labor, but didn't even realize she was in labor because the pregnancy had been so traumatic for her, the way she got pregnant was so traumatic she was basically in denial altogether that she was in labor or that she even was pregnant. I mean, we had to convince her that she was pregnant when she called in.

So what happened is, we sent one of our volunteers out to her house, and said, after talking to her on the phone, said: Honey, we think you are in labor because every two minutes you are making this "ungh" sound. And so we sent a volunteer out there. She wouldn't call the emergency -- anybody in the emergency forces. So we sent a volunteer out, and the volunteer got out there just in time to get her in the bathtub. She was in the bathtub. And as the volunteer was helping stand her up, she said: Oh, it didn't hurt like this before. And she was actually divulging that she had done this before, and that baby was nowhere to be found.

So what we did with her -- with the program, she was taken to the hospital, had a very healthy baby. And through the help of our volunteer, we were able to talk to her mother. And as it turned out, she is raising this baby. She has decided she wanted to raise the baby. She told her family. She was just in fear of her family ever knowing, and not that she was in any fear of being physically abused, it was just the shame of it. She didn't want any family members to know that she was pregnant, that she had gotten pregnant.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. We are going to take a break. Up next, could laws designed to protect women who abandon their babies conflict with existing adoption law? And could it sever their parental rights?

Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

A Spokane County Superior Court judge has ruled that police do not need court permission to record online chats.

The ruling came despite Washington's Privacy Act requiring consent of both parties before telephone conversations or conversations over "any electronic device" can be recorded.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers. You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the Worldwide Web. Just log onto cnn.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday, 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. If you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

Several states have passes laws or are debating legislation which would limit the prosecution of women who abandon their babies in safe zones.

Joe, is it a good law or a bad law?

JOE HURLEY, BRIAN PETERSON'S ATTORNEY: Well, Greta, let me begin by thanking you for not asking my definition of Project Cuddle, because at my age it'd been a little different than what you heard.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it's accepted. Now how about my question?

HURLEY: To answer your question, it's good and it's bad. And let's say this: It's not new. There's a thing called a lazy-susan, and few people know this, but lazy-susans were invented during the reign of Napoleon and they had what were called foundling hospitals with holes in the wall. And this is true. I'm not making this up. Dr. Neal Kay (ph) told me this, who's an authority.

And what would happen is that an unwed mother or whoever it was that wanted rid of a newborn infant would come to the lazy-susan, place the child on the outside of the wall, turn it around and walk off and leave. And these hospitals thrives, and that's 400 years ago. Consequently, this concept of a safe haven is not new. You've got to ask yourself in the first place, why are you enacting a law? And in this particular case, this law sends a message, some people would say, and that message is: It's OK to conceive, it's OK to give birth because you have a parachute of responsibility, or away from responsibility, by simply taking the baby to a place of safe refuge and walking out the door and washing it off and walking away.

On the other hand, we have laws like welfare laws, and one could argue that you give a bounty for having a baby. We have laws that allow condoms to be given to kids. That's not saying, here's a license to have sex. We have laws that say if drunken drivers pull over to the side of the road instead of continuing to drive, they're not prosecuted. So I think, all in all, if you think that the law is effective, than the law has a very good and salutary effect.

Takes you to the next question: Is it effective? You have to look at the profile of the person that's going to be affected, and what you're going to have usually are people who are very, very sensitive to humiliation: family, friends. They're not worried about the police, they're not worried about the government, they're worried about, does their best friend find out? Does their mom find out? Does the next-door neighbor find out?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, let me ask you a hypothetical question: You represent Brian Peterson and he and his girlfriend Amy Grossberg had a child that ended up dying. Do you think that this law would have prevented that, hypothetically?

HURLEY: Wouldn't have touched it. Wouldn't have had anything to do with it. These people were in denial, as are most people who are in this situation. They're going to deal with it the moment that it happens. When that baby is lying between the mother's legs, when that baby gets picked up, that's the point to say, what are we going to do now? The last thing on their minds were, what will the police do if we go to a hospital or a church and leave this child?

VAN SUSTEREN: Doug, you're a prosecutor in Montgomery County, Maryland. Is this a good law or a bad law, to give these safe havens?

DOUG GANSLER, STATE'S ATTORNEY, MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND: I think it's a good law. And it's a good law because it saves many, many, many lives of babies.

The case I'm currently prosecuting in Montgomery County, for example, had a woman six weeks ago who had a baby. She was an illegal immigrant. So her -- people want to kill these children for a variety of reasons. And her particular case, she was an illegal immigrant, she didn't want anyone to know that she was having a baby so she never sought prenatal care, and so fourth, took the baby seven hours after having the baby into 18-degree weather and put her in a trash can. And by mere fortuity, somebody happened to hear the baby's faint cries, saved the baby eight minutes before the dumpster came, which would have splattered that child against the iron blade of a trash-compacting truck.

It's a good law because, in that case, the baby would have been saved. The baby's life would have been saved. The tradeoff is, the new parents that would have gotten -- eventually adopted the child would not have known the birth history and the medical history of the child, but the -- obviously, the benefit is we would have saved a life there.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right...

HURLEY: Well, the question is, would that lady have acted any differently if there was some law that was in effect she didn't know anything about? And the answer is no.

VAN SUSTEREN: How do you...

GANSLER: If she didn't know about it, yes, but obviously public information is such that you would hope that she would confide in somebody, or did confide in somebody that she was, indeed, pregnant, she was having a situation, she didn't want to go to a hospital. This woman actually had the baby in a bathtub and really knew she was going to do this all along, and that's why we charged her with attempted first-degree murder.

VAN SUSTEREN: Doug, why is it -- why do you favor a law that allows a parent to abandon a baby? And I assume that you would -- well, how would you feel about the law, extending it so you can abandon a 10-year-old you're sick of?

GANSLER: It's a little different in terms of a baby versus a 10- year-old. What we're talking about here is somebody who intentionally, with premeditation and deliberation, wanted to murder that child. She wanted that child never to be known that she was actually even born. And if you abandon an older child, it's not a murder trial. We're not -- they wouldn't be killed, they would probably...

VAN SUSTEREN: But under these new -- but under these safe havens, it's not the intent to murder, it's the intent to abandon the baby for whatever reason. How is that different from intending to abandon a 10-year-old? Why should we give a woman who has an infant sort of a free ride and someone who abandons a 10-year-old will go to jail.

GANSLER: Because in the case of the infant, what you're talking about is basically a substitute for adoption. In other words, and was said earlier, you're allowed to get pregnant and you're allowed to have a baby. You're just not allowed to put them in a trash can to have them die. If you're taking a 10-year-old or somebody, you can also have that -- put that child up for adoption. If you abandon that child, that child probably will live. If you abandon that child knowing in 30 seconds a building is going to fall on the child, you can be charged with murder in that case, otherwise we're talking civil remedy.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joe, how do you respond to that? Do we give mothers in these states with these safe havens sort of a free ride if they abandon an infant but you go to jail if you abandon a 10-year- old? And, sort of, what's the rational with the different treatment?

HURLEY: Well, Doug starts out, with all due respect, the position not dealing with teenage people who have contact with the criminal law, and I do. And teenagers know about the law when it bites them in the posterior. They don't know. It's a fantasy to think that they're going to know. To give a person a free pass because they are abandoning a 29-day-year-old -- and in Texas, I notice the drop-off is 30 days. So if you drop the child off in the first 30 days, free pass, you're out of here, thank you for dropping the child off. If it's 31 days, excuse me, come here, you're not walking out the door. That's a rather arbitrary situation. I think the very fact that you pose that question indicates the fallacy of the cut-off, the bright line of 30 days.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to learn about that Texas law. Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: An Ohio man has been indicted for drunk driving, his 17th such charge in the past 20 years. The recent arrest came just six weeks after his most recent drunk-driving conviction. How much jail time does he face if convicted on the latest charge?

A: Eighteen months

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF.

We're talking about safe haven laws which protect women who abandon their infants from being prosecuted. We're going to go to the telephone now to Geanie Morrison, who is a state representative in Texas.

Geanie, what's the law in Texas?

GEANIE MORRISON, TEXAS STATE HOUSE: Well, basically, I wanted to say that Texas is the only state that has a law at this point. We are working with 23 other states that are working with us to pass similar legislation, and it's in various stages.

Also, the other emphasis that I wanted to put out was that we are addressing the problem also with a project called the Baby Moses Project, and anyone that would like to see more information, please pull up our Web site, and that is BabyMoses.org, and it will giving you a lot of answers to questions.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, joining us from Capitol Hill is Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.

Representative Lee -- Jackson Lee, what should the federal government, if anything, do about abandoned babies? Should the mothers be immune from prosecution?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Well, first of all, I'd like to applaud the fact that communities all over the nation are apparently seeing this as a crisis as we saw it in Houston and as it was seen in some degree in the state of Texas, and that is the abandonment of newborn babies, in this instance, and as well the abandonment of babies in hospitals; they're a two-pronged problem.

I believe our first approach should be to save baby's lives, and that is why you've seen a rise not only in legislation locally but also in outreach efforts, such as one that we've had in Houston, Don't Abandon Your Babies, that have had an impact and others that have been mentioned on this program. I believe that there should be some culpability, because we're talking about an endangered life, a baby who cannot do anything for himself or herself.

I do believe, however, it is important to give an out, and that's why the law was formulated in Texas where there is an option. Why there are studies -- or not studies, but there are concerns about legislating in states across the nation. I want to do in the federal law a study that will determine the degree of baby abandonment both in places like dumpsters and in school trash cans, as well as in hospitals, and then provide incentives, federal incentives, to local communities who will engage in prevention programs and other prevention programs that will allow or disallow or discourage people from abandoning their babies, particularly young women.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, why in the world, Representative, should a mother get a walk, a free walk for an infant but not for an older child? I mean, what's the -- what was the intellectual rational for distinguishing between the two?

JACKSON LEE: Well, let me say this: I believe that any abandoned child is as important as the next. So, whether the child is 10 years old or whether the child is an infant, we all are responsible for protecting our children.

But I don't think that it was the idea of giving a mother a walk. I think we realize without any serious study on this issue that there is some dysfunction, there is some problem that causes either the teenager or the young woman or whoever it is to abandon that baby, some psychological problem, some desperation problem, rather, there's no sources of income. And so this is not only a criminal issue but it is a social issue. To avoid the criminal impact, we want to say to these desperate persons, we are a resource for you to bring that child.

With respect to the older child, we at least know that an older child can reach out, is either going to school, some relative may be able to find out what is going on with it. I don't diminish the abandonment of a 10-year-old, but we do know the abandonment of a baby results most likely in death.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joe, there's a, I think, a problem if the women are allowed to leave their babies anonymously, we have the problem that a biological father certainly has rights and may not even know. What kind of protection can a biological father have in this instance?

JACKSON LEE: Well, that's why, you know, obviously, state laws differ, but that's why I am interested on the national level to do a study of this problem so that we can take into consideration, I think, the very important point that you've made. There may be a biological father who is perfectly willing and able to take care of that baby and should have the opportunity to do so, and/or relatives. I don't want to quickly pass federal legislation or offer federal legislation that extinguishes the rights of those individuals. And therefore our study is to determine what is the best approach, what is the nature of the problem and what is the best approach to solve this and maybe give some guidance to our states and local jurisdictions.

VAN SUSTEREN: Joe, what do you think we should do vis-a-vis the father?

HURLEY: What do I think you should do?

VAN SUSTEREN: In these statutes.

HURLEY: There's nothing you can do at this -- she's taken the logical approach, and that is to find out what you're dealing with first before you start making the legislation. So, it's putting the cart before the horse to give you the answer what we should do until we know what the issue is.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, you get the last word, because that's all the time we have for today.

Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Join us tomorrow for a special edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. President Clinton will join us to discuss federal gun control laws in the wake of last week's shooting in a Michigan first-grade classroom. That's at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time, 9:30 Pacific, on another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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