July 1, 2008

Surrendered Infant Law: 100 Babies Saved in 8 Years

Lori and Michael Lewis had never heard of Florida's safe-haven law when they received a call asking them to take a newborn into their Fort Lauderdale home in June 2003.

The couple already had taken in four foster children, ranging in age from 4 months to 5 years, but they couldn't turn away a baby in need. When A Safe Haven for Newborns officials arrived on their doorstep, "they handed us a baby and said, 'You've got to name her,' " recalled Michael Lewis.

Half the job had already been done by firefighters at a Deerfield Beach station who named the baby Hope when she was left there on Father's Day.

Gloria Hope Lewis is one of the 100 babies who have been safely surrendered by their mothers under a Florida law that allows women to drop their newborns off at any hospital or fire station -- with no questions asked -- within three days of birth. Today, on the Surrendered Infant Law's eighth anniversary, it is being expanded to give mothers a seven-day grace period.

Of the babies safely surrendered in the past eight years, 40 were left at fire or rescue facilities and 57 were taken to hospitals. Three were taken to law-enforcement offices, and those mothers were not prosecuted because they were following the spirit of the law, officials said. All of the babies were given to private adoption agencies.

Since the law's inception, 39 babies were abandoned in unsafe places -- from trash bins to bathrooms -- and 24 of those infants died.

'Not abandoned . . . saved'

Unlawfully abandoning a child is a felony in Florida. All 50 states have some version of the abandoned-baby law, although they differ greatly. In some states, a mother has up to a year to surrender a baby.

Baby Gloria was 2 days old when her biological mother called A Safe Haven for Newborns' 24-hour hotline and was given directions to the nearest fire station.

A few days later, she called the hotline again and asked Safe Haven officials to meet her at a church so she could give them a journal containing letters she had written to her baby and its new family.

That journal is guarded closely and read often by the Lewises, who were unable to have a biological child of their own and have moved to Owensboro, Ky.

They adopted Gloria Hope and one of their foster children, Erika, on the same day in February 2004.

The journal, Lori Lewis said, "tells the whole story about Gloria's mother, who was adopted herself. Gloria was not abandoned; she was saved."

'Completion to our family'

In Florida, surrendered babies are taken to a hospital, and once they are found to be healthy, the hospital contacts a private adoption agency from an approved list.

The mother has 30 days to change her mind -- that has happened three times in the past eight years, said Nick Silverio, founder of A Safe Haven for Newborns.

Two women reclaimed their babies within 24 hours and the third about two weeks later, he said.

Twice, volunteers with A Safe Haven for Newborns have gone to the homes of mothers who wanted to surrender their babies but couldn't get to a fire station or hospital.

Baby Kristopher's biological mother was one of them.

Silverio picked up the infant boy from his mother. In no time, he was standing in Aja Iglesias-Terrell's West Palm Beach home.

Iglesias-Terrell already had four children when she was asked by a friend at her church to care for the baby boy just hours after he was surrendered in December 2003. It was love at first sight when Silverio showed up with Kristopher in his arms.

"I felt the maternal attachment immediately," Iglesias-Terrell said. "I knew this was my son."

Iglesias-Terrell, 39, is in the process of moving back to the West Palm Beach area from Bowie, Md., with husband Richard, 48, and daughters Alyssa, 12, and Ananda, 11. The couple also has two older children in college.

The moment tiny Kristopher was brought to her home, she and her husband decided to adopt him.

"I didn't give birth to Kristopher, but God made him the completion to our family," she said. "Our life changed so much. But it changed for the better."

Gary Taylor can be reached at [email protected] or 386-851-7910.

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