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State bill would set up boxes for 'relinquished infants' at law enforcement, medical facilities

David Floyd • Mar 15, 2020 at 8:15 PM

A local state legislator says a bill working its way through the General Assembly would add another tool in the toolbox for state officials to ensure the safety of young children in Tennessee.

“House Bill 534 provides another safe option for newborn babies who are unable to be properly cared for by their parents,” House Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, said by email on Friday. “This bill also accelerates the adoption process so these children can be placed in safe, loving environments.”

According to an amendment dated Feb. 20, the bill, which was approved by the House Children & Families Subcommittee on March 4, requires certain law enforcement and medical facilities to receive “relinquished infants” up to three days old if a mother leaves them voluntarily in a “newborn safety incubator” at the building.

According to a March 4 press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus, the bill “paves the way for the use of safe haven drop off baby boxes in Tennessee for unharmed, newborn babies who cannot be properly cared for by their parents.”

The caucus said these “safe haven boxes” would be enclosed, locked and monitored compartments that meet safety requirements by the Department of Health.

Those facilities would be required to keep the infant safe, and no more than 24 hours after receiving the child, contact the Department of Children’s Services to make arrangements for the child’s care and custody.

“All boxes will be monitored and secured so any child placed in them remains safe,” Hill said. “The overall goal of the boxes is to limit instances of children being abandoned on doorsteps or in entry ways to buildings so they are not exposed to any threats to their personal safety.”

The facilities covered under the bill include hospitals, birthing centers, community health clinics, outpatient walk-in clinics, emergency medical services facilities and fire departments and law enforcement facilities that are staffed 24 hours a day.

The amendment said the proposed bill would not have a significant impact on programs or policies implemented by the Department of Children’s Services or the Department of Health.

“We are deferred to the will of the legislature on this bill,” Jennifer Donnals, DCS executive director of communications and legislation, said in response to a request for comment Friday.

The fiscal impact is not expected to be significant, according to the amendment.

“At this time, no additional funding will be provided by the state,” Hill said. “However, we know there are several community and nonprofit partners that care about and are invested in the well-being of our youngest citizens. We are hopeful these partners will work with facilities and the state to ensure all children have their unique, individual needs continuously met.”

Hill said the bill’s language is modeled after similar laws passed in both Indiana and Ohio, which have already implemented “safe haven” boxes.

“Once passed, Tennessee will be at the forefront of this important issue so we can ensure a larger number of our most vulnerable Tennesseans can find safe haven,” Hill said.

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