A days-old baby found dead in a dresser drawer. A child wrapped in a quilt and garbage sack and left in a park. Another drowned in a river and a fourth left in an irrigation pump house at a miniature golf course.

These are the stories of abandoned Utah children that no one likes to hear. They are situations state Rep. Patrice Arent wants to help prevent.

At Wednesday's legislative interim meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee, Arent, D-South Cottonwood, will introduce a draft bill to give parents the option to abandon newborn infants at designated safe havens around the state.

"The idea is just to come up with an alternative to a horrible situation. To set up a network that will allow them to safely give up their child and give them anonymity from prosecution," said Arent. "What are the alternatives? Is there a way to do it short (of) the Dumpster?"

Arent's bill would move Utah into the national conversation about the safe abandonment of infants. In the past year, 11 states have passed so-called "safe haven" legislation, and another dozen are considering it.

Research by the Child Welfare League of America, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., indicates that in 1998, 108 children 12 months old or younger were abandoned. Of those, 33 died. Those numbers are up from 1991, when 65 infants were found, eight of whom were dead.

"Those are just the ones that were found," the league's spokeswoman, Joyce Johnson, said. "That's part of the problem, no one really knows for sure how many children are being left, but no one wants these children to die."

In looking at the issue, most states discover no legal mechanism exists for dealing with the safe abandonment of a child. When children are found they typically end up in the hands of law enforcement, which then involves the local child protective agency, Johnson said.

Last September, after 13 infants were found abandoned in a 10-month period, the Texas legislature passed the nation's first safe-haven bill, which provides for parents to leave their children at either fire stations or hospitals. Texas law doesn't hold parents harmless, but it does grant that if parents abandon an infant in a designated safe haven within 30 days of its birth, they are allowed to use that act as part of their defense.

Many states are using Texas, where the outreach and education campaigns include a toll-free hotline and billboards, as a model for their own programs and legislation, said Judy Hay, a social worker and 20-year veteran in child protective services. Hay administers the program in Harris County, Texas.

But after nearly a year in operation, it is unclear if the law has made any difference, she said.

"No one has availed themselves of the law as it is written. No one person has literally called and said 'I've given birth and I want to give you my baby,' " said Hay. "Whether or not they have seen our billboards or called and received information and realized they had other choices, we don't know."

Like most states, Utah statistics are somewhat incomplete. The Division of Child and Family Services records cases of child abandonment through its child protective services division, but the numbers reflect only those children that came into state custody. DCFS records indicate that since January 1997 through June 30, 2000, six children under 12 months old were found, division spokesman Carol Sisco said.

That does not include the 4-day-old son of Rebekah Jolynn Woods, who was found dead last February at a St. George miniature golf course. Woods is now facing first-degree murder charges, and police believe she also abandoned a 2-year-old daughter in Las Vegas.

Or the baby girl born Jan. 14, 1998, on the floor of the bathroom in a Cottonwood Heights home and found 10 days later in a dresser drawer of her mother's bedroom. Heidi Sonnenberg, 22, pleaded guilty to third-degree felony child abuse and has served one year in a residential program for female child abuse offenders.

Or the three children of Darcie Jo Baum. One was found wrapped in a quilt in a plastic garbage bag at the mouth of American Fork Canyon in 1998. Another, in 1999, lay dead just a few feet from Baum's own lifeless body in a Provo apartment. Police also say that a DNA test links Baum to a baby girl found drowned in the Provo River in 1992.

"People are shocked by (these) stories," said Arent, who is the mother of two.


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